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Episode Transcript

My guest today, Arnold Schwarzenegger has achieved astonishing successes. He’s one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, a seven-time Mr. Olympia winner. As an actor, he’s headlined a stream of blockbuster movies, including his iconic role as The Terminator. And in politics, he served two terms as a governor of California. How in the world does somebody pull off that trifecta?

SCHWARZENEGGER: I visualized coming to America. I visualized to be a bodybuilding champion. I visualized very clearly to be a leading man in the movies. For me the first most important thing always was a vision.

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

Would you take life advice from Arnold Schwarzenegger? Whatever he did, wow, it sure worked for him. But on the other hand, he’s such a special case, so different from the typical person. I wonder if the things that worked for him would work for you and me.

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LEVITT: I’ve been so looking forward to this. And in your new book you talk about shutting your mouth and opening your mind and that’s exactly what I’m going to do today. So you’ve had such incredible success. And I know you’ve always believed, even from a very early age, that you would do big things. But I’m curious, growing up in your little village in Austria, do you think other people there also sensed that you had a big future? Was it obvious to everyone that you were different somehow?

SCHWARZENEGGER: No, of course not. I think that if you have a big dream, like I had with the age of 15 to be the world champion in bodybuilding — and I wanted to be like Reg Park and Steve Reeves, the guys that we see on a big screen playing Hercules. They both were Mr. Universe and had a very, very successful bodybuilding career and that’s what brought them into movies and that I wanted to be one of them. So I heard only one thing and that is, “Arnold, you’re crazy. It’s never gonna happen. It’s impossible.” But I saw it very clearly in front of me. I felt okay, but I see myself as a champion and so I’m going to go and emulate those guys and I’m going to train like them. I found out through the magazines how those guys trained. And I joined a weightlifting club in Graz in Austria, and I started weightlifting because we were not allowed to just do bodybuilding, which meant that I just had to train more, twice as much as everyone else. And I saw progress and I really saw myself grow and respond. And people around me that were, helping me with my training were responding and saying, “Wow, this is unbelievable. After one year, you’re already bench pressing at 200 pounds. You really have a great potential.” And also I got some positive feedback. And I think at the age of 18, I already won my first international competition, the Mr. Europe Junior Competition, Best Built Men of Europe in the below 18 years of age category. And so that was, like, a huge success. It was during the time I was in the military and I felt at that point, I’m on the right track. This is working. I just won an international competition, even though everyone said it’s impossible. And so I just kept moving forward.

LEVITT: Were people coming around? Did your parents — who I assume were very practical people, they’d been through World War II and deprivation — at what point did they come around to your big dreams?

SCHWARZENEGGER: My parents, I think they always felt that I was overly ambitious and that was not healthy. But you have to understand when you grow up in Austria, so overly ambition in a socialistic country was not really hailed. So this was now, I’m talking about the early 60s and I just felt that because I came home during lunch break and did 500 sit ups, and then I had lunch, my mother just thought this is absolutely unacceptable to be this kind of crazy, and to train in the morning before I leave for school, and to train in the afternoon during lunch time, and to train at night again in the stadium where the weightlifting club was. So she just was concerned as a mother — maybe I’m overdoing this whole thing. And she called several times to the doctor, for help on this. And he always talked her off the ledge and said, “No, this is quite normal. You know, when kids get to a certain age, they get very ambitious, and they want to get muscles, and they want to get strong and all this.” And even when she saw all those photographs of naked men on my bedroom wall, she was very concerned about that because these were all bodybuilders with little posing trunks and oiled up, but she saw them as naked men. And there was Sonny Liston also up there, world boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, and powerlifters, weightlifters, Rayford Johnson. I mean, all these people that were, like, champions were up there on this wall in order for me to wake up in the morning and get inspired and motivated and look at that and say, “These guys did not go and become the champions by sleeping in. No, they got up probably in the morning and they probably trained and trained.” So this is what motivated me to get up every morning. But I think that, to get to your question, not until around 1967, when I won the first Mr. Universe contest with the age of 20 and I was now in the newspapers in Austria — even though I was already living now in Germany, in Munich, but I was in the newspapers all over Austria as the youngest Mr. Universe ever and about that I made my dream become a reality — my mother then finally my father realized that I was just a very ambitious guy and that I’m serious about my dreams and they should not be in my way and they should not be negative. And then they started supporting me. And then they came to bodybuilding competitions. I remember in 1972 in Essen, Germany there was the Mr. Olympia competition and my parents, both of them, came to that. And it was actually the last time I saw my father because then a few months later, he passed away from a stroke. So he saw me winning my third Mr. Olympia title. My mother saw it at the same time. They were very happy. And I was very happy too that they could see that I will follow my dreams.

LEVITT: So, you’ve got a new book out. It’s called Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life and at one level, it’s a how-to book — how to lead a successful life. But it’s more than that. It’s a very personal and intimate autobiography. And it’s also laugh-out-loud funny in various places. My own experience writing nonfiction is that the single hardest thing is to get the tone of a book right, to find the right voice. And at least for me, you really nailed the tone. When you write a how-to book, it’s easy to be preachy or to be dictatorial or something. But somehow you captured exactly this feel that made me want to listen to you. And I’m just wondering whether you had to work at that or whether it just came out of you.

SCHWARZENEGGER: I don’t think that I worked on it. Maybe the editors did. I sure didn’t. I tell you that my whole approach is always not to be too preachy, because I know that doesn’t have any effect on me either. And I always try to tell people, “here’s the way I did it,” rather than, “this is what you should do.” What I tell them is, I want to write this book to show you the seven tools that I used from the time I was 10 years old when I visualized coming to America and then my dream became true eventually. I visualized to be a bodybuilding champion. I visualized very clearly to be a leading man in the movies. I visualized to get into comedies. And the list goes on and on and on. For me the first most important thing always was a vision. It was seeing it in front of me to know exactly what am I chasing? What is going to be the purpose when I get up in the morning? So when you have that vision, you give yourself the marching order to march towards that goal. And so this is why for me, it was easy to then train five hours a day and never worry about, “Oh my God, I have to do another squat or another sit up or another leg raise or another bench press.” Because every lift was one step closer to that Mr. Universe title. So I told people it brought me great joy when I was in the gym because I knew why I’m training. That’s how I developed, for instance, the first tool: visualize your goals. And so I started writing down this kind of tools. You know, ‘work your ass off.’ I would have never, ever made it if I didn’t believe in working my butt off every single day.” I worked on construction sites, I worked on my bodybuilding, I worked and studied in school, I went to acting classes. It was like 24 hours a day doing something and being useful and really creating a career for myself and getting smart and learning English. The other thing that I have always relied on is to let the people know what my plan is and to let the people in on it because when you have the people on your side, that’s the ultimate power. I remember Ted Turner would always say, “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise.” And so I had also in the book, you know, advertise. Sell, sell, sell. I cannot really be successful as a bodybuilder if I am going to an empty auditorium and compete when there’s no one showing up. If I ran for governor, and no one knows what my political philosophy is, and what is my goal for California, how can I expect the people to vote for me to become governor? So it’s all about sell, sell, sell, but selling in a positive way.

LEVITT: It was funny — I was liking the book a lot and then I got to rule four, which was “Sell, sell, sell.” And I thought to myself, “Oh God, I hate sell. What terrible advice it is.” But it’s because I didn’t understand what it was until you told a great story about when you were promoting Terminator and all the critics were focused on the violence. Because when you say “sell, sell, sell,” you’re not talking about manipulative selling. You’re not talking about distorting the truth so that people buy your product. You’re talking about storytelling, about getting your true story into people’s head.

SCHWARZENEGGER: I wrote it on purpose this way so it sounds a little sleazy because you want to be a little bit provocative and you want people to say, “What? Wait a minute, let me read that chapter. This is really interesting.” When I started doing action movies like Terminator, a lot of people were focusing more on the violence and they were talking about, “Oh my God, he’s killing all these people.” So they would ask me at the press conference, I said, “What about all the violence? How could this be good for children to see?” I said, “Do you have the Bible at home? Do you let your kids read it?” I said, “Well, you know, this is the most violent book there is probably ever been published.” And all of a sudden they started backing off. They understood what I was talking about. I said, Terminator is probably the best written movie of that year, if not one of the greatest written movies in history, because it predicts the future. It talks about humans versus machine. And sure enough, Jim Cameron was absolutely right of the danger of those machines becoming self aware. TIME Magazine, that normally doesn’t favor action movies at all, put it in the top 10 movies of the year. And I think that raised a lot of eyebrows. And from then on the movie really took off, not just as an action movie, but as a very intelligently written movie. We had to be out there communicating that to the press. I always looked at them as a partner. Yes, they have written sometimes terrible things about bodybuilding or about my acting and about my movies and all that stuff. But so what? My attitude never was hostile towards the press or towards the movie critics because of that. I said, “Hey, I’m sad that you didn’t like the movie as much as I did.” Or sometimes I would just say, “Hey, that critic was really smart because he hated the movie as much as I did.”

We’ll be right back with more of my conversation with Arnold Schwarzenegger after this short break.

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LEVITT: So rule number two of your new book is “never think small.” And I’m holding your book, looking at it right now. I love how you start that chapter. It says, “By the end of 1987, I’d killed 283 people, more than anyone else in Hollywood during that time by far.” So explain what that has to do with not thinking small.

SCHWARZENEGGER: The chapter is about not picking small goals and to shoot for the top. So I was not about to look at it and say, “I want to become Mr. Austria.” I wanted to be the greatest bodybuilder in the world. And the same was with movies. I didn’t want to just be an actor. I wanted to be a leading man and I wanted to be Clint Eastwood. And so I always had a big vision to have my name be above the title. I could see the billboards on Sunset Boulevard before they ever appeared. When I ran for governor, people said to me, “Don’t you want to run for mayor first so you get some experience?” I said, “What experience do I get from running for mayor? I want to go and straighten out the mess in California, not in some little town.” I felt that if I have a very clear vision of what I want to do with California, and if I articulate that well, I think that I can really convince the people to come my way and to vote for me.

LEVITT: I went back and I watched the candidate’s debate that took place a few weeks before you were elected governor of California. It is one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen in any setting. I mean, you made it look so easy, but I’ve learned by now that the only way to make things look easy is to do enormous prep. I’m guessing you must have prepared like crazy for that debate.

SCHWARZENEGGER: You should know that I’m a reps guy, which means that I believe in a lot of reps, or some people say mileage. It’s just the more often you do something, the better you get. You have people, they will act out as different characters that will be on the debate stage — some will act out as Lieutenant Governor Bustamante, other ones will act out Arianna Huffington, and everyone had their job, and then I was debating with them and we were practicing, and getting attacked by them, left and right, and see, how do I handle that? When they attack me like that, when they say evil things and things that are wrong and lies. So that was number one. Number two was: you have to study the issues. So when someone talks about pension reform, that you know about it. When you talk about weapons and about gun control, that you’re aware of those kind of issues. And when you talk about the economy, that you know how much control does the governor have over the economy in a particular state?

LEVITT: How did you learn so much so quickly? I mean, you weren’t campaigning for that long, and yet as I watched you in that debate, you knew the issues. You knew enormous amounts. How did you educate yourself?

SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, by having people sit in my house from the time I announced. The next day Governor Pete Wilson gave me kind of his old team, and they came over to the house and they were working with me from nine in the morning to eight at night every day. And it was, like, fabulous. So my backyard became like a university. And if you really are interested in something, you can learn very quickly — like, I want to be governor, I want to win this, I want to win the debate — so then you just absorb everything in a totally different way. And to me the key thing was, in order to set myself apart from the rest of the candidates, was basically to go and create humor. Because no one in Sacramento had humor. I mean, I was there at this hall and I remember there was not one sound in there. It was kind of like everyone thought this is the most serious thing. But in the meantime, I didn’t think of it that way. I said to myself, “They screwed up the state of California so bad. Let’s be able to laugh at the whole situation. Here we are now, there’s a recall election for the first time in history. Let’s talk about that. And, you know, let’s lighten it up a little bit.” I threw in some comedy. And then all of a sudden the whole auditorium started laughing. And the more I told jokes, and the more I used humor, the more people started coming my way. And I realized it very quickly because I read the room, which is one of the things you do as an entertainer. Next day, when the numbers came out, I jumped ahead in the polls running for governor. And from then on, no one could take that lead anymore from me.

LEVITT: Before that debate, I think you were polling around 25 percent of the voters. Two weeks later, the election comes, you get 48 percent of the voters, more than your second and third place competitors combined. I would say it was one of the most dramatic debate performances ever. And people should watch it. There are little bits of it in the Netflix documentary Arnold, but I was able to find the whole thing in the C-SPAN archive. And I think anyone who studies politics should go back and watch your performance. Now, I’m curious, did you ever talk afterwards about that debate with the other people who were on stage with you? Arianna Huffington or Cruz Bustamante? You can sense at the beginning, they’re totally dismissive of you, but by the end their whole body language changes. They understand they just lost the election. But I wonder if you’ve ever been able to talk to them about that.

SCHWARZENEGGER: No, I think that Arianna Huffington kept running around and saying I was insulting to women and everyone had their own little take on the whole thing and trying to derail me, but in the meantime it was too late. I right after that did a press conference and I could see that the press loved it and they just were absolutely delighted with my performance. So I knew that I had won that night and I felt really good about it because I’ve had debates before, but not political debates like that. And it worked.

LEVITT: Can I ask you another, just a weird question about running for governor? There is a clip where somebody throws an egg at you and you act like you don’t even feel the egg or notice it. You just keep on going, smiling along. Do you remember when you got hit by that egg? What were you thinking on the inside?

SCHWARZENEGGER: You don’t think, you just do. Because those are the moments that make you win or lose. I was announced to go on stage and to give my speech to the students at the Long Beach University, and all of a sudden this egg landed. So if I look at the egg, that means that anything can take my focus off the main goal. My main goal is to deliver that speech to the students and to tell them what my policies are going to be and which direction are you going to take the state of California. Not, was there an egg there or was there a stone thrown at me? Or was there a piece of bread thrown at me? It’s all irrelevant. You have to go to those events like a machine. And the egg hit and I just brushed it off with the hand. And on the way to the stage I took off my jacket. So there’s no evidence of that at all. And then continued up on the stage and gave my speech. I knew it was very important how I handled the situation. And so when I was asked, “Arnold, what do you think about someone threw an egg at you?” Then I said, “Well, I hope the next time he also throws some bacon, so I have a complete breakfast.” You make a joke. Someone else that’s an idiot will go and says, “It’s outrageous. I feel insulted. It’s unbelievable.” It’s all a bunch of crap. I wanted to just be cool, because people watch you. Every move you make, they watch. How do you look? How do you react towards questions? Do you get nervous in front of the press? Do you start stuttering? All of those things people judge, so you have to be cool. So when I said to myself, okay, I’m gonna have a funny answer, that made everyone in the press corps immediately laugh again. Now that elevates you. It has nothing to do with policy, but you can handle stress and you can handle tough moments.

You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Arnold Schwarzenegger. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about why his role in the movie Twins changed Arnold’s acting career.

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It makes some sense that Arnold Schwarzenegger was a Hollywood action hero. But how in the world did he begin starring in comedies?

LEVITT: Rule six in your book is “shut your mouth and open your mind.” And you tell a story in that chapter that I had never heard about how you got talked out of playing the character Kyle Reese. And that’s a decision that has really changed, I suspect, everything that happened in your life. Can you retell that story?

SCHWARZENEGGER: I was offered to play Kyle Reese — that was the heroic character in Terminator. And by the time I was meeting with Jim Cameron I started telling him what the actor had to do that played the terminator in order to prepare the train for the part. And so I started going off the deep end and I say, “He had to be blindfolded, to take weapons apart, and to put them back together,” and the way he had to walk like a machine, and he cannot turn his head the normal way, he has to turn it like a robot. There was certain things that I felt need to be done in order to make it believable. And so I was talking about that the whole lunch, and then Jim Cameron said to me, he says, “You totally understand the Terminator character. Why don’t you play the Terminator?” And I said, “No, that’s not really what I was looking for.” I said, “I was looking for playing Kyle Reese.” The problem is I wanted to play heroes. That was my vision. He says, “You can be the hero, Arnold, because you’re playing the character really well. So you can kind of have both. You can be the best villain and at the same time the most heroic guy.” He says, “The way I will shoot you is all shooting up from below with the camera, low and up, so you look really heroic.” And I said to myself, “I think it could be something very powerful, the way Jim Cameron explained it to me.” Because he has a very clear vision of what he wants to shoot. And I accepted it. I said, “Okay, I’m in.” We shot Terminator and it came out that fall, in 1984, and it was a huge hit. I was very happy that this was the first movie where my body was not the most important thing. Yes, in the beginning there’s this nude scene where I come out of the ground and walk naked with Los Angeles in the background. But the entire rest of the film, I was like playing a regular kind of action hero. And from that point on, it was a huge breakthrough in my career. I was offered then Commando, and Predator, Running Man, Red Heat. I did so many action movies after that in the ‘80s that I said to myself, “I gotta go and do something different. I gotta go into comedy.” And then I started doing Twins and Kindergarten Cop and those comedies.

LEVITT: You say it like it was easy, but it was like your parents didn’t want you to be a bodybuilder. Nobody in Hollywood wanted you to be a comedian, right?

SCHWARZENEGGER: That’s why I said in my book, “Don’t listen to the naysayers.” Because I realized very quickly that anytime you have a vision that is very much out there that people will say, “This is impossible, this can’t be done.” And it was not that I didn’t understand the studios. Because the studios were making money. And so the studios basically said, “You have to understand, Arnold, that we love to invest in you and give you more money, but let’s not go and change tracks now.” And so only until Ivan Reitman came around, who just finished directing Ghostbusters — now he was like the biggest comedy director that existed then — he said, “I would love to develop something with you, Arnold.” I said, “Wow, Ivan Reitman.” And three months later, he would send me a treatment, which then ended up becoming Twins. He hired Danny DeVito and we did the movie Twins, and that movie grossed more money domestically and foreign than any of my action movies. So that’s when the studios actually realized, “Wow, Arnold could be sold in action movies, in comedies, in barbarian movies, in anything.” It drove up my price and I was a very happy camper that I could reach another one of my goals, which is to do comedies.

LEVITT: But to do that, to do Twins, you took no money upfront, right? You took the risk because you believed in it.

SCHWARZENEGGER: There was no reason to take money upfront because I wanted to show to the studio — I said, “Look, you’re taking a risk. I also will take a risk. So you don’t have to pay me my salary.” And Danny DeVito and Ivan Reitman, they also said, “You don’t have to pay us a salary. Why don’t you just give us together 37 and a half percent of ownership of the movie and not pay us?” And so this way, we are all taking our risk. And so the studio said, “Yes.” And then the movie ended up making worldwide around $200 million. So we were, of course, happy campers financially and also otherwise, because the movie literally went through the roof. And it kept making money for a long period of time. So it was really successful.

LEVITT: Because you made that back end deal, was that the best financial payoff you ever got from being in a movie?

SCHWARZENEGGER: Without any doubt, yes.

LEVITT: I think when you were governor, the policies that you were most proud of related to climate change. In 2006, you instituted what’s called a cap-and-trade program that sets limits on emissions. And you were really early on climate change. That policy was passed in 2006, which, just to put into perspective, it’s the same year that An Inconvenient Truth came out in the movie theaters. It must be frustrating that the government, especially the U.S. government, has been so ineffective when it comes to climate change. So little has been done to follow your early example.

SCHWARZENEGGER: I would say that the one that was early was Ronald Reagan. When Ronald Reagan was governor, he created the Air Resources Board. When you create a law here in California, it’s that board that actually executes the law and make it actually become a reality. That is what I call a visionary. Then people followed him because we in California never really looked at the environmental issue as a political issue. He was followed by Jerry Brown. And Jerry Brown started really getting into the solar and wind and renewable energy and getting us off fossil fuels and protecting the groundwater. And I felt like that I’m late. Not early. That I’m late. Because we have now known since the 70s that we need to get off fossil fuels. Remember Jimmy Carter, he was really radical and he gave tax credits when he was president for solar, and I remember I invested in those tax credits. So, it was early on already that people made big attempts, but as usual, they were not as good with the follow through. We in California were good with the follow through. But when I got to Sacramento, and I saw that we had 15 percent of renewables, I said to myself, “That’s total bulls***, right?” I said, “Why aren’t we having 50 percent of renewables?” We were very aggressive and we moved our renewable energy to 50 percent, exactly what I envisioned. But there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. We continue grinding it out and making sure that we are the model for the rest of the world. And to let the world see that California is the fifth largest economy in the world, sometimes even the fourth largest economy in the world, even though we have some of the most aggressive environmental laws. So the environment does not derail your economic growth. and economic growth does not have to derail your environmental progress. So you can do both.

LEVITT: You wrote an op-ed over the summer expressing discontent with the way that the environmental movement was selling the message about climate change. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

SCHWARZENEGGER: When I came into office, I saw things with fresh eyes, with new eyes. And so I realized right away that environmentalists were having a big heart and they really try hard to make this a better world and a cleaner world. But also at the same time, I had to be honest and just point out when there was the wrong moves that are being made. And one of the things was the communication. I felt that the climate change — that word did not really resonate. We shouldn’t make people scared of the weather changing and the temperatures changing. We should make people scared of what pollution does. Pollution kills 7 million people a year. And when you’re talking about sell, sell, I think that it is a better way of talking about pollution rather than talking about climate change. The next thing that’s important is we cannot villainize the oil companies because we cannot villainize something that we can’t be without. We need oil. We need oil in order to move people around all over the world. So when they go and they start attacking and saying oil is bad it sounds all good, but how do we make the people get off oil when they don’t have an alternative? They say “you can’t have nuclear power, that’s terrible.” But that would be a great solution to get us off oil. And it is clean, just like they do in France, and have been doing it for decades. And at the same time, we have to go and build not the old fashioned big nuclear reactors, but the small ones that Bill Gates talks about. I think it is very important that instead of just letting national governments negotiate and be part of this, they should also have subnational governments participate in the negotiations, because who in America is doing the most for the environment? There’s California, there’s New York. The federal government hasn’t done anything. Until the Democrats and the Republicans come together on this issue, I think it will never really be resolved.

People have continually underestimated Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I’m as guilty of that as anyone. That changed for me when I sat down to watch the gubernatorial debate we talked about from 2003. The mix of intelligence, humor, intuition and power that he displayed that evening were, to me, simply stunning. There’s a link to that debate in the show notes for this episode. I encourage you to watch some of it, especially if you’re an Arnold skeptic. After watching that debate, I will never underestimate Arnold Schwarzenegger ever again.

LEVITT: Now it’s the point in the show where we take a listener question and, as always, I am joined by Morgan, our producer, to keep me in line.

LEVEY: Hi Steve. A listener named Eamon wrote to the show asking why citations are the most common metric used for judging the merit of an academic paper. What if, instead, academics rated and commented on papers?

LEVITT: Well, I would agree that citations are not a perfect measure. But they are, of course, the dominant way that people tend to measure impact. The reason we want ratings for things like Airbnb or restaurants is because they serve a real purpose for people who don’t know very much about the product to very quickly get the market’s assessment. But in the world of academic papers, I just don’t think that’s very important. Most of the people who care about these papers are in the field. They’ve read the papers. They know about them. When I studied crime, I had more or less read every paper that had been written on crime in the last 20 years. And so I made my own judgments and I had a hierarchy in my head and I didn’t really care very much what the market thought about the quality of those papers. On top of that, I would be deeply suspicious of ratings in this context. You face two choices. Either the ratings are going to be anonymous or they’ll come with names attached. Now, let’s say you go the anonymous route. I just think there’d be so much cheating. Academics would figure out all sorts of ways to bolster their own ratings. And if you didn’t make it anonymous, then I think you really get into a problem where everyone would be very tempted to give five-star ratings to other people’s papers because if I give your paper a one-star rating, I can almost guarantee that I should expect to find a bunch of one-star ratings from you on all of my papers. In this world where everyone in the field knows each other, it’s really hard to make ratings work well.

LEVEY: Do you have other ideas for ways to judge papers that could replace citations?

LEVITT: I do. And it’s built off the idea that not all citations are created equal. When I have 50 citations in my paper, there are a few really important citations that are foundational to what I’m doing. There are often more than a few negative citations, papers I’m citing because I think they’re terrible and I’m trying to replace them. And in raw citation counts, those two kinds of papers get counted exactly the same. And so one thing that Pierre-André Chiappori and I did in a paper we wrote many years ago, is we looked at all of the data-based papers that had been published in top economic journals over some window of time, and we searched through it to try to find really what was the foundational theoretical idea that the paper was based on. And we found that it was really easy — that in almost every empirical paper you could find a citation or two that was really the key citation for that paper. So you could imagine doing something like that much more broadly and then measuring how often papers are foundational to other papers.

LEVEY: So you mean essentially weighting citations differently?

LEVITT: Exactly. So you might have regular citations and you might have foundational citations. You could ask the authors when they submit their papers to not only have a title and an abstract, but also to have the author say what two or three citations they believe are foundational to the work.

LEVEY: That makes a lot of sense. Eamon, thank you so much for writing in. If you have a question for us, our email is That’s It’s an acronym for our show. We read every email that’s sent and we look forward to reading yours.

In two weeks we’ll be back with a brand new episode featuring Walt Hickey. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning data journalist who analyzes the way in which movies and TV affect every facet of our lives.

HICKEY: It’s not just a thing that you are watching or hearing or seeing. It is having a physical and measurable and — more importantly — repeatable effect on your body.

As always, thanks for listening and we’ll see you back soon.

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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Julie Kanfer with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jasmin Klinger. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. We can be reached at, that’s Thanks for listening.

SCHWARZENEGGER: We hired a lot of bodybuilders. By the way, they were lazy bastards. They just wanted to get a tan.

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