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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: That was a really good humblebrag, I have to say.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: Do checklists make people stupid?

DUBNER: Do schoolwork, hate parents, go out with friends, hate parents.

Also: Given the state of the pandemic, is it time to give up on cities? 

DUCKWORTH: People are decamping out to, if I might say it, “the ‘burbs.” 

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Stephen J. DUBNER: Angela Duckworth, our question today comes from a listener named Chris Shipman. “I work at a place that ‘thrives’ on process,” Chris writes. “Thrives” I guess connotes irony and suggests that this workplace doesn’t actually thrive. So anyway, Chris goes on, “But I feel like checklists deaden critical thinking.” That brings us to Chris’s actual question: “Do checklists make people more stupid?” So, Angela, I like this question because it is a specific procedural question, but it’s got much broader implications if you want to go there. So, do you want to go there? 

 Angela DUCKWORTH: I want to go there. I’ve been thinking about checklists actually long before Chris Shipman sent us that question. I read Atul Gawande‘s Checklist Manifesto

DUBNER: Great book. 


DUBNER: It just is. Even if you’d think it wouldn’t appeal, it does appeal, because he’s a good writer and a great human. 

DUCKWORTH: As you know, Stephen, Atul Gawande is the Harvard surgeon who also somehow ends up moonlighting as a world-class writer for The New Yorker and also of books. And The Checklist Manifesto — I should give the gist of it. 

DUBNER: Gist it. 

DUCKWORTH: So, there are tons of studies about how surgeons, as smart as they are, after more than a decade of training, they do stupid things, like they leave sponges in the patient’s body. Whoops! And, you know, days later, the person has sepsis, and you realize that a stupid mistake was made. And so checklists are a way to avoid mistakes when the procedures are straightforward, but they’re so complex. You know, there’s like 19 things that you’re supposed to remember, and you remember 18 out of 19, but that’s not good enough.  

DUBNER: The model for this, as far as I recall from the book, was flying airplanes that started to get much more complicated back in the 30s and 40s and so on.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think in the back there’s even a photo of the checklist that pilots have to use in order to take off and to land. Of course, those are the parts of your flight that are most likely to kill you, because there’s all these things that a pilot has to do. I mean, look, if you were a student in school, 18 out of 19 is an A, but unfortunately, when you’re a surgeon or a pilot—

DUBNER: If you’re the pilot of a plane, 18 out of 19 is dead. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, exactly. So, Atul learns about this. He thinks about his personal experience. And he says, “Why aren’t we using checklists in the operating room?” There have been some large-scale trials to see whether this improves patient outcomes. Do surgeons make fewer mistakes? And then, do patients live healthier and longer lives because of it? And what would you guess, Stephen, is the result of this research?  

DUBNER: Well, I think I know the result, because I actually care about this stuff a little bit. So I think the result is that it works. And the take-up rate of checklists in, let’s say, operating rooms is quite strong in some places, in the kind of hospitals where there’s good administration and good adherence to protocol, but in a lot of other hospitals, especially poorer countries, the checklist was not taken up, even though, if I recall, the World Health Organization made The Checklist Manifesto part of its manifesto.  

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Like sleep and exercise, they’re great if you do them. They don’t do anything if you don’t do them. 

DUBNER: Okay, but checklists are great for certain kinds of activities or enterprises, like flying an airplane or surgery, where there is a list of things that should or must be done. But — and this I guess gets to Chris’s question — we don’t know what kind of work Chris does, but I could imagine that there are a lot of kinds of work, or a lot of activities, whether they’re more creative or academic, where a checklist might be useful — and look, I like checklists personally, and I use them — but I could see where an over-reliance on them would routinize, or bring some more creative activity down to a level that you don’t want. 

DUCKWORTH: Because the very nature of checklists means that you’re not thinking, that you’re following a procedure mechanically. You’re not on item 17 of the takeoff checklist and thinking, “Well, what would I actually think about this?” No, flip this switch and you get to take off. So I think that’s right. I think that when you have complex tasks that are straightforward, even though there are 19 steps, that don’t require judgment.  

DUBNER: Ah, judgement. 

DUCKWORTH: Have you ever looked into the training for Nordstrom’s shoe sales people? 

DUBNER: I have to admit, I have not. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, the reason I looked into it is because I have bought plenty of shoes at Nordstrom, and it’s famous for its service, and in particular the service around shoes. If you look into the training of Nordstrom salespeople, the first and maybe only rule that they’re really asked to follow is: use your judgment. And that’s kind of anti-Checklist Manifesto. A customer comes in and they’ve worn these boots obviously for two years, and they say, “I’d like my money back. Full refund, please. I don’t like the color.” Instead of a checklist, “do this, look at their eyes,” it’s use your judgment. And I think that’s a nice counter to the benefits of checklists. 

DUBNER: Use your judgment, “I believe that if I don’t give this person what they want, they will kill me, and therefore I should do it”? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I think that’s right. I think that there must be certain scenarios where you just can’t create a procedural checklist because there are too many alternatives. If you just go down the list, you’re going to miss something. And in the case of a really angry customer who might do something either untoward or even dangerous, I think you do want somebody who’s human and who is thinking.  

DUBNER: So, if I recall correctly, I believe that Zappos, another, well, a pure shoe company—

DUCKWORTH: I’ve bought plenty of shoes on Zappos too. Just wanted to share that with you. 

DUBNER: I’m sure you have. So, Tony Hsieh of Zappos had a number of interesting, unique ways of thinking about customer relations. And I do recall — I’m not sure if it was about using judgment over a checklist or over a script, as you often get in a customer service call — but he did encourage customer reps to stay on the line with people as long as they needed, and to really just have a conversation with them. And some business analysts attributed their overwhelming success to that more loosey-goosey thing. So I think what we’re saying is we agree that domains matter, activities matter. But I think what Chris is getting at is that it’s not the magic bullet — and that’s what you’re saying too — but it’s a tool in the arsenal. It’s not the goal. There needs to be other tools. But to me, what’s interesting about that is when people think about business or creative life — I do think that a lot of us, and I would include myself in this sometimes, do search for the magic bullet, the “one thing.” Even though I really believe in multifactorial explanations — it’s almost never one thing that radically changes an outcome — and yet, I feel a lot of us do look to put too much weight on that next one thing. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, the very title “Checklist Manifesto,” it does make you think that if you read the book, your business is going to be fixed, or your life is going to be fixed. And I think Atul Gawande would agree that a checklist does not substitute for 10 years of surgical training. It’s a tool. When you think about a real toolbox, we’ve all used a screwdriver, we’ve all used a hammer. Some of us have used a wrench — not many. 

DUBNER: Wait, do you have data on the fact that fewer people have used wrenches than screwdrivers and hammers? You sound sure about that.

DUCKWORTH: I really hope it comes out [in] the fact-check, because otherwise I won’t be able to sleep. I myself, I’m not sure I have used a wrench, but I’ve definitely used a screwdriver and hammer, Stephen. And my point is that the tools have specific purposes. So, checklists are ideal for complex, multi-step tasks that can be fairly routinized. And then there are other places where guidelines like, “use your judgment,” “have a conversation as long as the person needs to have a conversation” — where you have more degrees of freedom, if you will, for the human being to think — that’s another tool for another situation. 

DUBNER: I just realized that I think I use checklists, but I think I don’t — I actually think I just use a to-do list. But, there is one. And it’s a golf swing. 

DUCKWORTH: I should always just guess golf. Ninety percent of the time it’s the right answer. 

DUBNER: It’s true. Well, with the golf swing, I do have something akin to a checklist. And I would argue that every golfer does. And I’m sure that many other people do in many activities. But with golf, it’s a funny activity because you’re standing over the ball totally stationary. You’re not reacting. So your biggest ally and your biggest enemy is your mind, because it can tell you what to do, what not to do. You can flood your mind with too much information, or you can forget things that you want to do.

And even the best players in the world do have what are generally called “swing thoughts.” Most people agree that the optimal number of swing thoughts is just one or two, because the timeframe is quite short. So I can’t think, “Tuck my shoulder. Bring back the right elbow. Fire through. Think about path. Think about direction.” If you think about all those things, you’ll probably hit the ground with your club instead of hitting the ball. So you need to isolate a few. 

I find that it really works. It helps me be better to know the things to do and to do them in the right order. But — and this gets to Chris’s question a little bit, which is — sometimes, the words revert to being just words and not actual instructions. So, even though I can tell myself all I’m thinking about here is, “clubhead, path, through the ball,” sometimes if I say those words, I forget to actually execute them, but I feel that since I’ve said them, I’ve checked the list. That to me is the great paradox of the checklist, or any reminder like that, is to not let the mere recitation convince you that you’ve actually done something. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s not the checklist items but actually doing the checklist. I mean, it’s so obvious. So, Stephen, when you said a mental checklist of two or three things, I think that’s also important to distinguish from the externalized checklist. When pilots are trained to fly, they are not trained to have a mental checklist. 

DUBNER: Right. 

DUCKWORTH: They actually need to have an externalized checklist, in part because — and this is why we have copilots — there’s a degree of accountability. So, I think in the context of organizations in particular, thinking about checklists as actual tangible things and not as mental lists is probably the right way to interpret Atul Gawande’s recommendation.  

DUBNER: So, here’s a question for you. Starting with a statement. The statement is as follows: I would not be surprised if the kind of people who use checklists, or even to-do lists, are the kind of people who already care about being productive and organized. So I’m not sure how good the tool of the checklist is, absent that desire or ability.  

DUCKWORTH: That motivation. 

DUBNER: So my question is: If you were to ask a bunch of unproductive, disorganized people to start using a checklist, would it work? That’s really the question. Is the checklist a causal mechanism? That’s what I want to know.  

DUCKWORTH: I think it is a causal mechanism. Random assignment studies are really great for figuring out causal mechanisms. And if you randomly assign different groups of doctors to use the checklist, you do find, in many circumstances, that patient outcomes are better. So, yeah, I think it’s causal. And I also want to say that it does require motivation and that is why it’s not always helpful. And I think Atul Gawande— I actually asked him, by the way, about checklists. This is a couple of years ago. I was all excited about — if golf is, for you, the answer 90 percent of the time, for me it is: How would this help kids? 

DUBNER: That was a really good humblebrag, I have to say. I’m just out wasting my time golfing, and you’re helping the kids. 

DUCKWORTH: Saving children’s lives. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. So, I ask Atul, “Could we teach kids? Could we teach teenagers how to use checklists?” And I was like, “I know Atul Gawande has teenagers. I’m going to hit him right where the heart is.” He agreed that it would be a great idea if teenagers could master this very helpful tool. And we also agreed that it would be only for circumstances in which there is a long, complex sequence of tasks that you might forget in the heat of the moment. But subsequently, with his encouragement, I went off to try to get teenagers to use checklists. And it never really took off, as it were, to use the pilot metaphor, because I think there was such mixed motivation. I didn’t find hundreds of teenagers who were just dying to master a new productivity tool. 

DUBNER: In this prospective teenager checklist, what’s on it? Like: do schoolwork, hate parents, go out with friends, hate parents. What is it? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I had in mind the routine that teenagers would have when they came — well, at that point — came home from school. I guess now it would be like, get out of your pajamas and come out of your bedroom after being on Zoom school. But I had in mind that teenagers could create checklists for their study routines. And as I say, there wasn’t a groundswell of excitement among the teenagers I talked to about improving their study routines. But I think there’s another problem. Now that we’ve had this conversation it actually makes it clearer to me. There aren’t 19 steps. It’s not like flying an airplane. There’s really one step, which is get your books out. Maybe one of the reasons why there was a lack of interest in this is because teenagers probably knew before I did that this is not a complex task that needs to be routinized.  

DUBNER: Right. So, I did make a checklist today. 

DUCKWORTH: You did? 

DUBNER: And it was: Ask Angie a question, talk to Angie, be insulted by Angela somewhere along the way about kids versus golf. And then, when all that’s done, say goodbye to Angela. So, goodbye. 

DUCKWORTH: Goodbye, Stephen.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela debate the merits of living in a city like New York.

DUCKWORTH: It smells like pee and trash. Especially in the summer. Did you notice that? 

DUBNER: Yep. Pee and trash season is what we call it here. We don’t call it summer.

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, believe it or not, I’ve been reading the real-estate section of The New York Times lately. 

DUBNER: Why would I not believe that? Do you think I think you can’t read?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t really read the real-estate section of the newspaper. 

DUBNER: Are you saying you want to move to New York? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t have any intention to move to New York. But I moved within a city. So, I moved five blocks, but I stayed in Philadelphia. But what I’m reading in The New York Times is that more and more, people are decamping from Manhattan out to, if I might say it, if it’s not a bad word, “the ‘burbs.” And you, to me, seem like the animal that cannot exist out of its habitat. I don’t even know how you’re living and breathing when you’re not in Manhattan. 

DUBNER: So first of all, I’m insulted that you think of me as so unadaptive as a human. I am, in fact, a farm boy. I can fish. I can raise crops. 

DUCKWORTH: You cannot.

DUBNER: I can build a lean-to. I can do all that stuff. In other words, I am in New York City by choice, not by default, and not by necessity — not by the fact that I can’t exist elsewhere. So it actually is a choice. Second of all, this exodus of which you read, young lady, I do believe is both overstated to some degree and more complicated. We’ve actually been exploring this very topic on Freakonomics Radio lately. So, let’s start with the overstated. The data are really hard to find. So, until we implant chips in everybody’s foreheads, or feet, or wherever they go — we don’t track people so well. So, there are a number of data streams that people have been using to try to figure out how many people actually have left New York City after the pandemic. One of the most prominent pieces of data was reported pretty early on, maybe in June or so, by The New York Times, which analyzed cell-phone data. More than 400,000 New Yorkers had left the city, according to their cell phone data. Now, this is in a city, keep in mind, of 8.3 million. So 420,000 is not a few people, but it’s also not two million people. But it’s also cell phone data. If you leave town, even for three months, with your phone, does that mean you’re not coming back? No, it doesn’t. 

DUCKWORTH: That’s not moving. But it’s being outside the city. 

DUBNER: Not a great metric, necessarily. And most of the people who left were people who had enough money to already have a place elsewhere. Then there’s another dataset from the U.S. Postal Service, which measures how many people have filed for their mail to be forwarded. And that number was between 200 and 250 thousand people.  

DUCKWORTH: Okay, that’s a lot of people, Stephen. Just saying.

DUBNER: It’s a lot, but, keep in mind, that was for the period that was measured, which I don’t know off the top of my head, maybe it was the first six months of the year or something. If you compare that to the same period the year before, there are about 120 thousand people in a typical year who file. 

DUCKWORTH: So it doubled. 

DUBNER: Right. So, again, now we’re talking about maybe 120 thousand extra. 

DUCKWORTH: Wait, you’re making my case, let me just point out. That sounds to me like an exodus.  

DUBNER: Well, it depends how you want to look at it. What I think of as an exodus, I think of massive and permanent leaving. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s not biblical.

DUBNER: It’s not biblical, yet. Now, this is not saying that it couldn’t be. Also, to be fair, New York was losing population the last couple years before the pandemic. 

DUCKWORTH: What? Really? Okay. I did not know that.  

DUBNER: It is true. Ed Glaeser, the economist at Harvard who studies cities and is really the dean of urban economists — he wrote a wonderful book years ago called Triumph of the City. And the subtitle is something like How Our Greatest Invention Makes us Happier, Richer, Smarter, Greener and something else. So he’s a big booster with a lot of data to back it up. That said, Glaeser acknowledges that in the last several years, the gains to city living have definitely started to level off or even fall a little bit. And to that end, New York City lost about 50 thousand people in the last couple of years, pre-pandemic.  

DUCKWORTH: I didn’t know that.

DUBNER: Oh, here’s another element to consider. In a given year, a lot of people typically leave the city for the suburbs when their families grow. So, one argument is that what’s happening here is an acceleration of a trend that’s timeless, that already existed. We actually made this argument about the relationship between the legalization of abortion and the drop in crime many, many years ago. When you look at the data on abortion, what’s interesting is that the women who have abortions often don’t end up having fewer children, but the timing is adjusted. 

DUCKWORTH: They have them later in life.

DUBNER: And so, in a way, seeing a lot of people who are leaving New York City seemingly permanently, some of that may be the acceleration, as I said, of this constant trend. So I think there are many, many, many elements to consider. 

DUCKWORTH: But I wonder about the more fundamental reasons. Like I really am more of a city mouse than a country mouse. Do you know that poem, by the way? I don’t know if it’s a poem. It’s like a children’s story. 

DUBNER: I know that there is such a thing as a city mouse/country mouse tale or poem, but I don’t know it. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s the story of two mice. 

DUBNER: They switch places? Is it like a Fresh Air Fund kind of story?

DUCKWORTH: Well, the city mouse invites his country mouse cousin to come and hang out in his more urban and urbane existence, and the delights of the rich food that they’ll be able to enjoy and the sophistication of the city. But he’s really unhappy, and as quickly as he can, escapes back to the simple pleasures of the country, because along with these delights of the city, there are so many stresses. And I think maybe one question I have, because you’re the New Yorker and I’m not — I mean, I live in a city, but I don’t live in “the city.” What is so great about New York? 

DUBNER: I think that’s a very good and legitimate question. When I was a kid, I was a country mouse. For me, the nearest city, “big city,” as I thought of it, was Schenectady. And even that was very intimidating to me. So I never imagined that I would want to live in any city, much less New York. And I wound up moving to New York in the late 1980s — at a time when it was in pretty bad shape financially and crime-wise and so on. And yet, I came to love it. And a lot of people do come to love it for different reasons. But I do think that people who live in cities like New York can be really arrogant and triumphalist. 

DUCKWORTH: But for a moment, could you be that arrogant? I actually want to hear more about what you do love about the city. 

DUBNER: There are many things that I love about New York, and I think many of those fall within the parameters of one word, which is “propinquity.”  

DUCKWORTH: I actually know that word. Because of the propinquity effect. 

DUBNER: Oh, I didn’t know there was a propinquity effect. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, okay, do you want to define propinquity? 

DUBNER: Well, it’s kind of an active form of density. It means that there’s a certain amount of density that lends itself to collaboration, or collisions, some of which are intentional and some of which are unintentional. and that generally produces a greater output than you might have elsewhere. That’s how I define propinquity. 

DUCKWORTH: That sounds right to me. And propinquity in the psychological literature — the mere propinquity effect — is that, just because of your physical proximity to someone, for example, you happen to be on the same floor as somebody else in an apartment building or in a dorm, you are more likely to become friends with them. You are more likely to collaborate on things, and—  

DUBNER: To marry them eventually.

DUCKWORTH: Yes. You could even say, definitionally, that’s what a city is.  

DUBNER: Right. And that’s Ed Glaeser’s argument, which is that cities have always been the place where ideas are amplified and then distributed — going back to ancient Greece and on and on. By the way, it’s obvious that the density or propinquity of cities like New York, which is usually an asset, is not an asset at the moment. In a pandemic, density is not your friend, without question. So, it may be one, two, five years — if we’re lucky — before New York recaptures what it has lost, legitimately: people moving out, businesses closing down and so on. 

But theoretically, unless there’s another pandemic, or unless this one goes much longer than scientists believe it will, theoretically, we’ll return to the point where density is once again an asset. And interestingly, Angela, I don’t know if you know this; I didn’t know it. But as of, let’s say, 2019, pre-pandemic, the world was at peak urbanization. In other words, never before in the history of the world has a higher percentage of people lived in cities. And what’s interesting about that is if you had told someone in 1974 that that would be the case, they would think you were nuts. 

DUCKWORTH: Because people were going the opposite way, right? 

DUBNER: All over America, cities were emptying out for the suburbs, because there were a lot of underlying economic and civil rights and employment problems. It’s a great testament to cities that so many cities recovered incredibly well over the past 30 or 40 years. Not for everyone. And there’s still inequality. And this is one of Glaeser’s points, too, which is that one reason that people seem to have become disillusioned with cities over the past couple years is that we’ve come to expect so much of them. We want everything to be good. We want the public schools to be great. Well, they’re not, often.  

DUCKWORTH: Because cities are so great, our expectations have escalated. 

DUBNER: Yeah. So, I do love New York. Although, when people don’t love it, the things that they complain about, I certainly get that. It can be crowded. It can be noisy. 

DUCKWORTH: It smells like pee sometimes. Did you notice that? Especially in the summer. It smells like pee and trash. 

DUBNER: Yep. Pee and trash season is what we call it here. We don’t call it summer.

DUCKWORTH: And by the way, I did know about the rise of cities. Do you know why I know that? 

DUBNER: Because you read Ed Glaeser’s book? 

DUCKWORTH: No. Although I’m a big Ed Glaeser fan. My husband did his undergraduate degree — he designed his own major. 

DUBNER: Oh, I thought you were going to say, “designed his own city” and called it Jasonville.

DUCKWORTH: No. He did not. Well, he is a real estate developer, but that would be a bit grandiose as a description of the little developments that he does. But he designed his own major as an undergraduate and it was “cities.” He’s a big fan of cities. We both are. We asked ourselves, should we, during the pandemic — because we knew we wanted to move. I just knew that this particular house that we were in was a little too small for us under any circumstances, especially one in which we were, all four of us, having to constantly be working among each other. 

And we had the decision: should we take this opportunity to move to the suburbs or should we stick it out? Many of my friends were saying, “This is the time. Run for the hills, literally.” But if you walk around my city of Philadelphia, I mean, there is a material difference. There is kind of a depression and an anxiety in city-form. So, yeah. It did cross my mind briefly, but we decided to stay here, because I’m optimistic. We’re not going to have to be quarantining forever. And I believe in propinquity. 

DUBNER: Honestly, I think suburbs can be beautiful. And look, having a 4,000-square foot house really beats having an 800-foot apartment in some ways. When we were having kids, we looked at many, many, many other places to live and decided that we did not want to live there. One of the big reasons that we decided to stay in the city, even though it looked financially risky, we felt that one advantage that cities confer on children and adolescents and teenagers is that, no matter what you are into or not into, you can find a community or a population, and they don’t have to be other kids from your school. 

So my son started riding the subway when he was typical Manhattan boy age — like 11, 12, 13. He could get around. And he could participate in his interests that went well beyond what were just the things going on with his friends at school. So he was a big soccer fan for many years, and he got involved in this fan club for F.C. Barcelona, the football club, soccer team, Barcelona. And they would meet in a bar to watch these matches. And sometimes I went, but sometimes I didn’t. He became like the kid mascot of this club. And it was a huge part of his life. And that was a real urban experience. I read a lot and hear a lot about young people in more isolated places who do have a hard time establishing a network that works for them. And I do think that cities can provide that possibility. 

DUCKWORTH: What about the argument that things have changed, even since your son was that age? And with Zoom and with wi-fi, you don’t need to live in New York to discover your tribe? That you could do it virtually. 

DUBNER: They said that when the telegraph happened. They said that when the telephone happened. They said that when the fax machine happened. I was a young writer when the fax machine was coming out and the personal computer was getting really popular. And the conventional wisdom across the board was, oh, nobody, especially a writer, will ever have to live in a city. Why on earth would you want to live in a city? Because you can do what you do from anywhere. And I can tell you, I could give probably a thousand examples in my life where an idea, or a story, or a way of thinking about something was informed by the result of propinquity. 

DUCKWORTH: I think you’re right. This all comes down to propinquity and whether human beings from millennia of evolution get the same rewards from real propinquity and virtual propinquity. And being on a Zoom call with 10 people is different than being in a park with 10 people. 

DUBNER: Yeah. I should say I’m also happy to not be around 10 people ever, at all. My friend James Altucher wrote a piece about his having left New York — and he says forever, although I don’t believe him. And that New York City is over forever. And that this catastrophe, Covid-19, is bigger and worse than any preceding catastrophe in the history of New York, and that this time is different, and this time is real. That’s the argument that James Altucher wrote. And it was very widely read.  

DUCKWORTH: I bet he got lots of hate mail. 

DUBNER: I think he probably got a lot of response on both sides. I’m guessing a lot of people said, “Yeah, New York is definitely over, and it should have been over long ago.” And then others attacked him, including Jerry Seinfeld in The New York Times, writing an Op-Ed. And basically Seinfeld’s take was this guy, James Altucher, is a putz who is not loyal, and I certainly wouldn’t want him on any team of mine. But the irony of that is that Jerry Seinfeld is writing this piece defending New York City from his house in the Hamptons because he too left! But whatever, people can and do what they want to do.

I will say this, though: James Altucher, who I love, he’s just a very unusual and very, very sweet person who’s very smart. He and I, for the last many, many years have been playing backgammon in person every couple weeks, or every couple months. It’s just one of my favorite, favorite, favorite things to do in New York. And then James wrote this piece saying New York is over, because I can’t do things like play chess with my friends, or backgammon, or go to restaurants. So my feeling is that James and people like him need to give it a little time. I understand where they’re coming from. He’s now living in Florida. 

I would rather personally live in a diminished New York than in Florida in any state. It’s just not my kind of thing. But I will say this. James wrote to me the other day saying, “Hey, how’s it going? Let’s get together for some online backgammon.” And as much as I love James, it took me like five days to even bother replying, because I don’t really want to play online backgammon. 

DUCKWORTH: Not only did you not want to play online backgammon, you didn’t even want to email him back. 

DUBNER: It’s not the same. And so, James, I’m sending out this message to you. I still love you, but we’re only playing backgammon when you move back to New York City. So, I will keep the light on for you. 

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio and People I (Mostly) Admire, a new podcast hosted by Freakonomics co-author Steve Levitt. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.

In the first half of the episode, Angela says, “We’ve all used a screwdriver. We’ve all used a hammer. Some of us have used a wrench.” I’m sorry to disappointment Angela, but there isn’t much data available regarding the percentage of the population who have engaged with these tools over the course of a lifetime. However, in 2019, commissioned a survey of 2,000 millennial fathers and found that 38 percent of them do not own a screwdriver, and 32 percent of them don’t own a hammer — a tool which, according to, 93 percent of boomer dads do own. Unfortunately, the survey did not include data on millennial moms, childless adults, or the ever-elusive wrench. 

Later on in the episode, Angela brings up the story of The Country Mouse and The City Mouse, but she has trouble remembering whether it’s written in poetry or prose. It’s actually both! The story goes back to antiquity when Roman poet Horace wrote the narrative in dactylic hexameter as part of his collection of satires. It was later adapted as the Aseop’s fable The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse. But many listeners will be familiar with the version of the story from 1918 — The Tale of Johnny Town Mouse, written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter, the English natural scientist who famously authored The Tale of Peter Rabbit. That’s it for the fact check.

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No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster and Corinne Wallace. Our intern is Emma Tyrell. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study or an expert you’d like to learn more about, you can check out, where we link to all of the major references that you heard here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUCKWORTH: I was so bored for much of my childhood. Like, seven hours a day of just watching bad television, because there was nothing else to do in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.  

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