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How Rahm Emanuel Would Run the World (Ep. 415)

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As a former top adviser to presidents Clinton and Obama, he believes in the power of the federal government. But as former mayor of Chicago, he says that cities are where real problems get solved — especially in the era of Covid-19.

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

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NARRATION — STEPHEN DUBNER:

If you’ve been listening to Freakonomics Radio for a while, you know that Steve Levitt is an economist at the University of Chicago. You also know that when we were starting this podcast, 10 years ago, Levitt thought it was a pretty dumb idea. Now, to his credit, it probably was a dumb idea back then. But over time, podcasting became a real thing. Levitt, meanwhile, kept doing all the things an economics professor does; this includes writing academic papers. And you may recall that Levitt recently checked out how often his three most-recent papers had been cited by other researchers.

Steve LEVITT: And I got onto Google Scholar and the sum of the citations across those three papers was six. And I said to myself, “Wait a second! I just spent three years pouring my heart into something that has basically been read by six academics and nobody else in the world. What am I doing?”

It was around this time that Levitt decided that maybe podcasting wasn’t so dumb after all, because whenever he’d talk about one of his new papers on a Freakonomics Radio episode, he’d hear from a lot more than six people. Freakonomics Radio has a global audience of more than four million people. So Levitt, being a pretty bright fellow — and an economist — he decided that he should probably take his supply to where the demand is. A few months ago, he guest-hosted an episode called “America’s Math Curriculum Doesn’t Add Up.”

LEVITT: Let’s just say that someone made you the math czar tomorrow. What would be some of your first reforms?

Jo BOALER: So, I would change the curriculum to really reflect real mathematics, and I would also change it to reflect the 21st century, because maths still looks in classrooms pretty much as it did in Victorian days.

Levitt did a nice job with this episode, and it helped kick-start a national conversation about math reform. And so we got to thinking: wouldn’t it be great if Levitt decided to jump into this podcasting racket with both feet? Wouldn’t it be great if Levitt would maybe start a podcast of his own? The fact is, we’ve been working to develop a few new shows, as part of a Freakonomics Radio network that you’ll soon be hearing more about.

Now what, exactly, would Levitt’s show be? Well, one of Levitt’s most admirable traits is his intellect, of course; but it’s an unusual intellect. He’s much more likely and willing than the average person to think truly original thoughts. He’s also got a unique type of curiosity, both in subject matter and methodology. A lot of this goes back to his father, who’s a doctor and medical researcher. Levitt talked about his dad in an episode we put out back in 2011, called “Things Our Fathers Gave Us.”

LEVITT: So he’d take me to the hospital where he worked and when no one was looking, we’d sneak into the room with radioactive materials and play games with them. It wasn’t just, or even principally, laws that we violated. He taught me to flout the limits that society imposed.

One of his favorite activities, starting roughly when I was 10 years old, was to present scenarios from work involving other doctors making gross misdiagnoses. He would tell the stories in such a way that the answer he was looking for was attainable even for a 10-year-old, and when I gave the answer he wanted, he would tell me I was already a better doctor than the one who had handled the patient. He made me believe that there was nothing I couldn’t do, if only I put my mind to it.

Levitt’s dad, Michael Levitt, is one of the world’s preeminent researchers on intestinal gas; he’s known as “the king of farts,” the man who “gave status to flatus.” Michael Levitt was an outsider — but an outsider by design. Steve Levitt is also an outsider by design. One of those rare people willing to look at things from an angle most of us can barely imagine — until he comes up with an insight that seems obvious in retrospect. But none of us could see it!

This brings us to today’s episode. Let’s consider it a pilot for a new podcast, where Steve Levitt will be having one-on-one conversations with other smart and unusual thinkers, other “outsiders by design.” His first interview subject is Rahm Emanuel, the recently departed mayor of Chicago and, even more famously, a major player in both the Clinton and Obama White Houses. As always, we’re happy to hear any feedback you’ve got, especially your suggestions for Levitt’s future interview subjects. Just drop us an e-mail at radio@freakonomics.com.

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NARRATION — STEVE LEVITT:

I’m fascinated by unconventional people, probably because I’m so weird myself. I especially like unconventional people who also happen to be really smart. I find that if I can spend an hour talking with someone like that, it often completely reshapes the way I see the world. But there’s a problem. It’s hard to find people like that, and even harder to get them to talk to me once I’ve found them. Usually, they’ve got something much more important to do.

So I hatched a plan. What if I start a podcast? Maybe I could convince some of those folks who otherwise wouldn’t talk to me, to talk to me. So far, I would say the plan is working pretty well. Today’s guest, Rahm Emanuel, is the first person I approached for the podcast, and I can guarantee you he would not have spent two hours over the course of two days talking with me absent this podcast.

Typically, I have zero interest in politics. I don’t know much about political science, and it seems like politicians mostly rehash the same arguments every day with little desire to find real answers. But I was eager to talk with Rahm because I had just finished reading his fascinating new book The Nation City: Why Mayors Are Now Running the World. It’s full of deep insights, and that’s no surprise, since he has a reputation for being one of the smartest people in politics. Presidents Clinton and Obama both relied heavily on his advice. Because of his work during the Obama administration, Rahm’s name became permanently associated with the phrase “never let a good crisis go to waste.” He also spent three terms as a Congressman from Illinois and two terms as Mayor of Chicago.

He comes from a family of overachievers: His older brother Ezekiel is a leading bioethicist and advised the Obama administration on healthcare reform; his younger brother Ari is at the top of William Morris Endeavor, one of the biggest talent agencies in the world. Of the brothers, Rahm may have the biggest reputation for being a foul-mouthed, fearless, ruthless maniac.

As a teenager, working at Arby’s, Rahm had an on-the-job accident that took off half of the middle finger on his right hand. The story goes that when the doctor unwrapped Rahm’s hand after surgery, he flicked everyone off and said from now on he’d have to give people the middle finger twice to have the desired effect. While still in his 30s and working in the Clinton administration, Rahm is reputed to have pulled British prime minister Tony Blair aside just before he took the stage at an event, and admonished him, “This is important. Don’t fuck it up!” Now that is somebody I want to get to know better. Here is a guy who has been wildly successful. And yet, it is totally clear he doesn’t play by the rules that usually turn me away from politics.

As I waited for Rahm to show up for our first interview in Chicago, I started to have some misgivings. Rahm’s team had called ahead to the sound guy at the studio. Rahm was in a terrible mood, they warned. He had injured his leg the night before, and was in intense pain. In addition, Rahm’s father Benjamin — the two were extremely close — had passed away a few months earlier; the day of our interview would have been his father’s 93rd birthday. Knowing Rahm’s fierce reputation, I can honestly say I was a little bit afraid as we sat down to talk. Maybe you can hear it in my voice.

LEVITT: We’re rolling? Great. Rahm, why don’t you tell us your name, what you’re doing now, and a couple of the jobs you’ve done in the past.

Rahm EMANUEL: Rahm Israel Emanuel; father of three; former senior adviser to President Clinton; member of Congress, and in the leadership — chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; President Obama’s chief of staff; and then mayor of the city of Chicago for two terms.

LEVITT: The thesis of your book, Rahm, is that mayors run the world, and Covid must be the toughest possible test of that thesis. It’s a truly global disaster that’s disproportionately hitting the large cities. And it’s one that requires national, cross-national cooperation. Do you think of Covid as being the exception to your rule that mayors run the world?

EMANUEL: One of the principles of the book is that as the national government was dysfunctional, local and state leaders were going to step up. Now, I say in the book and I want to repeat: there is no replacement on certain levels. You can’t really have an immigration policy or a climate-change policy just in Chicago. You do need the national government to do certain things.

I do think one of the things that’s going to come out of this is that we’re no longer going to accept this kind of dysfunction. It’s just not going to be acceptable that the wealthiest country is this fundamentally unprepared for the future. That said, you can look at state and local leaders who have done extraordinary things because power vacuums get filled. Mayor Garcetti was the first to say that he’s going to make wearing masks the blanket policy of Los Angeles. And then, all of a sudden, the C.D.C. a week later is issuing that guidance.

LEVITT: Let me toss off a hypothesis I have, which is related to what you’ve been saying. So this particular crisis has been incredibly information-rich. It’s been data-rich. And the actions people have to take depend on their ability to understand data and models and forecasting, because the point at which you have to take radical action is the point at which almost nobody was sick, almost no one was dying.

And my own hypothesis is that we’ve done a really bad job in this country at making people data-literate. And our school systems haven’t focused on data; they haven’t kept up with the advances in thinking and computing over the last 50 years. And I think we’re paying the price in this epidemic because many public servants and many policymakers aren’t trained to think in the right way about data science and models. What’s your reaction to that?

EMANUEL: Well, this is rare for an Emanuel. I haven’t thought about that, so I don’t know. But usually we have answers before we have questions. My knee-jerk answer is: I’m not sure everybody should be walking around being a data scientist. That’s what data scientists are for.

But let me say this. We’re having a big argument inside the Emanuel brothers. Everybody’s guessing, even the best data scientists. And everybody goes, “Oh, just follow the scientists.” Well, I come from a medical family. My dadhow many times my dad asked for a second opinion? There’s a reason you ask for a second opinions. The science— I hate this analogy when everybody goes, “Oh, just follow the science.” Well, the science isn’t clear! We’re chasing information and it’s moving in real time as we’re making judgments. And that’s where you’re going to need just making a judgment. In the storm of a crisis, you’re making informed, educated guesses. And the emphasis is on the word, “guess,” not “informed” or “educated.”

LEVITT: You’re hitting on a point that I make all the time with my students, which is that the most important talent of a data scientist is common sense and thoughtfulness. And data alone are never the answer. It’s combining data with reasonable models of the world, with humility. But I want to give you credit, Rahm, as well, because you were just able to say, “I don’t know,” which I think says a lot about you. And I think on those questions where you answer with confidence, I think that should increase our confidence of the answers you’re giving.

EMANUEL: I may have you call some family members.

LEVITT: If you were a public servant right now and you had to think about coming out of this quarantine, what job would you want to have and what would you be trying to do?

EMANUEL: I think I had the two jobs I would want in any crisis, which is the mayor and chief of staff. On the national level, I think you’ve got to do three things right now. One is: how to step up a robust testing system, because you’re going to need it both for identification of hot spots and the ability to transition to some level of normalcy on the economy.

Two: a reorganization on the economic level. The first bill was a disaster-relief bill. It’s very clear there’s going to be more need for disaster relief. And then how to really think through what a stimulus bill should be. And I’ve thought about not only the normal infrastructure, which will take two to three years to spend out, the 5G and broadband universal you’re going to need because we’re going to have online learning, telemedicine, and stay-at-home work. That’s going to become the new norm. And you got to have a floor to guarantee equitable participation in that new economy.

And then I think major, major investments in our public health. I think, to quote Warren Buffett, “When the tide goes out, you see who was swimming without shorts.” And even though I think we have a great healthcare system in the country, the starvation budget of our public health indicates that we have not kept up with future public health needs.

And then third, if you look at history, in the beginning of the era of the Cold War, we realized we needed a more coordinated effort. The National Security Council was established. After 9/11, we created the Homeland Security Department and the D.N.I., the Director of National Intelligence, to bring all our intelligence agencies together. After the poor response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 in Florida, President Clinton, when he got elected, elevated FEMA to a cabinet level, put a serious person there, and plussed-up the budget.

This is our fifth pandemic in 20 years. You’re going to need a new office for bringing together all the resources so there’s one person in charge and accountable for our public health, early detection, mobilization, and deployment of resources. Because SARS, MERS, H1N1, swine flu, Ebola, since not one of those really destabilized us, we got our guard down. But we’ve been exposed, and now we’re going to have to organize. You can’t have C.D.C., N.I.H., FEMA, the military, the intelligence all playing a role in this, but nobody accountable for it.

LEVITT: It strikes me that if we were willing to make sacrifices on privacy, we could handle this pandemic much better. So, for instance, if we followed China and other countries’ lead, using cell-phone data to track people’s movements, or let’s say we did that in the future to understand both how things are being spread, but also to keep an eye on people who are under quarantine and whatnot. What’s your reaction? It seems to me that if we were just looking out for the welfare of society, we would be making big privacy sacrifices right now. But I suspect that that’s an extremely unpopular perspective.

EMANUEL: It is, but you need it. The question is: how do you build a policy that allows you to both protect people’s public health without violating their civil liberties? I do think there’s a way to do it, but be vigilant, meaning you don’t set the rules and then not think about them for 20 years. You set the rules and then you’re constantly monitoring to both ensure that they’re being applied appropriately and then, more importantly, updating them as both technology and other vulnerabilities are identified.

LEVITT: Why did you choose public service?

EMANUEL: I grew up in a home where politics — not just electoral politics, but current events — was debated constantly. My mother was an activist who set up and ran the CORE here in Chicago, Congress of Racial Equality. Did all the open housing and integration of beaches in Chicago. My father, as an immigrant, was a pediatrician trying to set up a practice. And in 1962, quits the— he’s been here three years, barely speaks English, and he quit the American Medical Association over national healthcare, which he was for and they were against. And then just a few years later, with maybe just a few more words of English under his belt, he sues the city of Chicago over lead in household paint and organized the pediatricians against that.

LEVITT: Your dad was certainly ahead of his time with lead.

EMANUEL: Just 52 years.

LEVITT: But your mom as well. The racial attitudes in Chicago in the 1960s, they weren’t particularly friendly, right?

EMANUEL: No. In fact, when we lived on Buena, which is in Edgewater, we got kicked out of there because of all the, as the landlord said, “All the colored people that were coming to the house.” And so it was very much in the home. And both of them, both on economic and social and racial justice, demanded the kids do something also of social and political value.

LEVITT: So let’s fast forward. As I understand it, you took a huge bet on a governor that nobody ever heard of, and it seems like that’s been paying dividends ever since.

EMANUEL: My dad was totally against this, so I used to tease him about it. So the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, when I was political director in the late ’80s, was a congressman from Arkansas. So we used to go through Arkansas quite frequently. And I got to know Bill Clinton and believed what he was doing, and we kept up that dialogue.

And I decided I was single, young. I always wanted to do a presidential. And the guy was at two percent, a whopping two. Bill Clinton, after the debacle of his ’88 convention speech, was a dumb bet. If you were taking a safe bet, you would have done Mario Cuomo. And I thought, “I’ll just get this done with my system. I want to do a presidential. I want to try this out. And I believe in Bill Clinton.”

LEVITT: And what was so special about him?

EMANUEL: Bill Clinton always said that the most under-appreciated, undervalued thing in politics is ideas. And I thought he had a new way of thinking about it, and I thought could pick the lock that Republicans had at that point, because they’d gone the 12 year-stretch in the White House. You’d have to be idealistic enough to know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and then tough enough to get it done. And if you look at successful presidents in history, neither one tips the scales too far one way or the other. They have both of those skill sets. And you look at all the ones that never make it, they usually tip one way or the other.

So Bill Clinton in 1997 proposed a children’s health insurance program — with pediatric care, eye, and dental — by expanding Medicaid. The Republicans came back and countered with pediatric care, no eye, and dental — but outside of Medicaid. And we cut the deal. It was President Clinton’s pediatric care, eye, and dental, but outside of Medicaid, which is the Republican model. The Republicans cared more about whether it was inside or outside of an entitlement program, Medicaid. And the President says, “We’re here to get kids healthcare. We’re not here to get a program expanded.”

Newt Gingrich says, “We’re going to accuse you of nothing but welfare for people that work.” And President Clinton said, “Listen, Mr. Speaker, I’m just going to tell you this right now. You just go ahead. You could throw me into that briar patch, because when I’m done, I’m going to have a policeman, a fireman, a teacher, and a nurse standing outside. And you can call them welfare. Make my day. Go ahead and throw me into the briar patch.” And Monday morning, we scheduled that press conference and they were folded like a cheap suit the next day.

LEVITT: When you talk about Clinton, I could sit here all day. But let’s talk about Obama. So you left the Clinton administration and won election to the U.S. Congress and did three terms there. And then you got the call from Obama to come and be his chief of staff.

EMANUEL: I was trying to change my cell phone number. I didn’t really want to do it.

LEVITT: That, to me, seems like the best job on the planet. I would like to have that job.

EMANUEL: The difference between you and I, Steve: I knew what the White House was like. You don’t. Okay? I know what the chief of staff job is.

LEVITT: So what is the chief of staff job?

EMANUEL: It’s the most miserable job in America. So— it’s the toughest job. The world is falling apart. It’s a tough job even when the world is going good. Worst is probably the wrong adjective. It’s the toughest, most thankless job, that’s true, probably. Which adds up to the worst job.

Let me back up. I become chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, win it, and Nancy Pelosi becomes the first female speaker. I then become caucus chair, which is fourth in ranking, and I’m basically a sophomore. I’d been to the White House. I was now on my road in the House — my own voting card, my own identity, etc. 

If you go to the White House, as I used to say, the White House is family-friendly to the First Family. It’s not family friendly to anybody else. And I would have to go six months away from my children. They would have to finish school, then come move out there. Everybody would have to disrupt their lives. And even when they moved out there, I’d barely see them. And I didn’t want that. But I also grew up— my grandfather on my mother’s side, my Grandpa Herman: “If the president asks you to do something it’s either ‘yes’ or ‘yes, sir’.” And it took me about 48 hours to figure out which answer I wanted to give.

LEVITT: So one of the things I’ve heard — I know nothing about Washington — is that the most important thing about the chief of staff is that the flow of information that could potentially get to the president is infinite. And the president’s got finite time. And what makes it so powerful is that you control what the president sees.

EMANUEL: I used to tell the cabinet this: “You can get in to see the president but you’re not walking in with a problem. I want to see all the solutions you’re offering. You are not allowed to dump on the president your problem; after his day, he’s supposed to think of your solution. So I want to see your solutions. Two or three. Nothing less. And you can’t have a phony one, a pig-in-the-poke, and then the one you want, but you’re scared of the politics. You got to have real, viable options. And nobody gets in without presenting those options to me.” And I would also organize the rest of this senior staffer core group David Axelrod, Gibbs, etc. to see it, evaluate, and scrub it, because you cannot go in and dump your problem on him. That’s not fair.

So that was one thing. The other thing is, you got to help the president evaluate all the options. President Kennedy used to say, “To govern is to choose between bad and worse.” And the judgment you need is to figure out which one is bad and which one is worse.

There are arguably few worse situations for a president than taking office in the immediate aftermath of a severe and dramatic economic downturn. Just weeks after Obama was sworn in in 2009, he signed a $787 billion stimulus package, which was among the largest spending bills in U.S. history. This came on the heels of his predecessor George Bush’s $700 billion TARP bill to bail out failing banks and other companies.

EMANUEL: And Republicans are against both, even under Bush. So basically within a blink of the eye for the American people, you’ve approved $1.6 trillion dollars. And then we passed kids’ healthcare, Lilly Ledbetter on pay equity and fairness, etc., some other things. I was making a very strong case to the President that we should do financial reform. The financial team led by Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, etc., are against what I want, because they said the doubt of a long battle about financial reform would stop banks from lending and that would not let the economy recover.

LEVITT: What did they want to do instead?

EMANUEL: It wasn’t what they wanted to do, it was what they didn’t want to do. Okay? Now, I made an argument to the president: One, the political system needs some Old Testament justice. We needed a banker in the middle of the public square and just slap him silly. Two, because of the financial meltdown, you were more likely to get a bipartisan vote, which both the TARP and the stimulus bill did not have. Third is, you would fight with the bankers.

Now, if you have to have an opponent, I like bankers. I thought, culturally, politically, holding the bankers and the financial industry’s feet to the fire and reforming the system would both garner bipartisanship and be a sense to the public, the middle class, that we’re still — their homes are underwater — it would be somewhat of a catharsis that somebody upstairs was being held accountable. To President Obama’s great credit, we had a four-hour discussion Saturday in the Roosevelt Room. I lost the fight. He made his decision. Healthcare first.

But what I loved about both President Clinton and President Obama is you were never scared to disagree with them. But once a decision was made, you enforced that decision. President Obama— I gave him advice on financial reform, lose that battle. He decides healthcare. I’ve been through this movie before. It doesn’t look pretty. I said, “Okay, if this is what we’re going to do, fine.” I told him upfront, “You will pass nothing else when you’re done. Kaput. Because this is not one that gets money back into the account. You’re taking it all out.” He made that decision. The president wanted it done. Now, did I chase members down, including working out at the gym and being very clear to them how they were going to vote? Yeah. I have no bones about it.

LEVITT: Going back to financial reform — as an outsider, at that same time watching, I was stunned at how the economists in the administration were just willing to do anything. They were so worried, it seemed, about being held personally responsible for the next Great Depression that they just didn’t care, another $500 billion.

And I challenged some of them later and I said, “As a public servant, shouldn’t you have been trying to maximize expected value for society or something, and not worrying about your own reputation?” And it was kind of like they hadn’t thought about that before. And then they changed their tune dramatically after that, said, “No, no, it wasn’t about our reputation. It was uncertainty and da da da—”

EMANUEL: I think we’re on the 12-year anniversary of the financial bailout. That was really good policy. It saved the country from a depression. Plus the stimulus bill, the two of them combined. Two of the worst political decisions you could ever make. And those two, one-two punch, saved the economy from a depression.

LEVITT: We have argued on this podcast that the president is not nearly as important as people think the president is, has much less actual power, the decisions matter less. You’ve pretty much disagreed with everything I’ve said so far. Do you disagree with that as well?

EMANUEL: Yeah.

LEVITT: So you think the president is actually really important?

EMANUEL: Yes, big time. If I had known this, I never would’ve come on this podcast. Who vetted this decision? So, I think presidential decisions are major. Otherwise I’ve wasted a lot of time giving sound advice.

LEVITT: You speak very reverentially about Clinton and I can’t tell whether you feel the same about Obama or not.

EMANUEL: Really? I think they’re both great presidents. No, no, no. Opposite. I suppose if there’s a slight tinge— I used to say to my mother, “You love Ezekiel more than me.” She goes, “No, I hate you both equally.” So let me say this. A, I spent more time with President Clinton. B, it’s in my formative political years. I revere President Obama. And we’re closer in age. We’re good, good friends. We have a personal relationship. But it was just at a different point in my life, and that’s why. Let me just be really clear. If I left any doubt, that’s bad on me.

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We started Freakonomics Radio in 2010 mostly as a side project to the books. A decade later, we’re expanding the Freakonomics Radio universe with a few spinoff shows including, perhaps, one very much like this, with me interviewing smart people, especially unconventional thinkers, in all sorts of fields. But we need your feedback! Email us at radio@freakonomics.com. Now, back to my interview with Rahm Emanuel.

LEVITT: A long time ago, Stephen Dubner wrote a piece about me in The New York Times: that I was this brilliant guy, and when there was some problem, I’d scratch my head, I’d type in the computer, and some brilliant solution would pop out. I’ve been able to milk that for the last 20 years and it’s really been helpful. You have a reputation as being ruthless and foul-mouthed and a tyrant. So to what extent is that a fake thing you’ve cultivated? To what extent do you think it’s helpful?

EMANUEL: Well, first of all, I don’t care. Here’s my thing: I am tough for the things I believe in. You should know, all my staff — still people that worked for me when I was President Clinton’s senior adviser — stay in touch with me and ask me to be references for their jobs, etc. Now, if all I was was a screamer, would that be possible?

We’re all more complicated than described. I actually think journalists, unfortunately for speed, time, etc.— did I send somebody a dead fish? Yes, I did it. And I’m not proud of what I did. And I would do it again. I wouldn’t do it again at this point in my life, but I would do it again at that point in my life.

So look: Am I tough? Yeah. Am I passionate? Yes. Am I a caring person who reaches out to people who years ago worked for me? For all the screaming and yelling that, “I only do. That’s all I do. I only have one tool in my toolbox. That’s it.” Really? Now, is it out there? Does it work for me sometimes? Sure. But update your metaphors, man. I’d sent the dead fish close to 30 years ago. Okay? But to you, I want to congratulate you, taking one article and making all the money you did off of that one article.

LEVITT: So you probably don’t remember, but the first time we ever met in person was when you had decided to run for mayor. We talked for a few minutes and I said, “You can’t seriously want this job. The mayor of Chicago right now is the worst job in the world. The city finances are in shambles. Pensions are unfunded. And the crime—” and you probably don’t remember your answer, but your whole demeanor changed and you got very quiet — not like you’re a teary guy or anything — but you said, “I love Chicago, and I’m the only guy who can save Chicago.”

EMANUEL: I said I’m the only guy?

LEVITT: Yeah, you said that. And it really struck me because, I’d never met you, obviously, but I’d heard so many stories about how ruthless you were. And at that moment, either great acting or a really genuine sense that you were doing—

EMANUEL: Either authentic or faking the authenticity?

LEVITT: Exactly. So you come and you win and you served two terms as mayor and now you’ve written a book about mayors.

EMANUEL: Look, the introduction is about my grandfather’s journey from Eastern Europe and fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe to come to a city as a 10-year-old. And this city made our family. And I do believe it’s the most livable big city in America. It’s the quintessential American city. And it’s the city that welcomed not only my grandfather, but my father. And we put our roots down here, so it’s home. And you have, Steve, some old shoes you refuse to throw away, right? And when I went to college, I immediately came home. When I left the Clinton White House, I immediately came home. When I left President Obama’s side, I immediately came home. And so this is home.

And the book is about the center of gravity of our politics. We’ve had these fluxes between national versus local. We’re in the beginning of what I think is a major local breath or center of gravity and a diminished role for national. That’s also true in Brussels and London, etc. When you think about the way you work, where you work, how you get to work, where you raise your kids, etc., the amenities of your neighborhood and community — schools, transportation, libraries, parks — all of those are services your local government gives. Which is why 75 percent of the public believe in their local government, but only in the 20s for national.

The national government’s becoming more and more like Disneyland on the Potomac. What’s different this time also is that local governments are: A, mastering the schools, the transportation, the libraries, the parks, and these investments that are key for the vitality of their city and their residents. And they have to do it, one, because the national government’s walking away; two, they don’t have the option of standing still. They have to make these investments.

Just take education. Lyndon Johnson, at the height of the belief in the federal government, he creates Head Start. Cities are burning, people are fleeing, and he gives mayors some money for early childhood education. And it’s to help mayors who can’t get it together. Fast forward 50 years later, President Obama — working with John Boehner, the speaker of the House, a Republican who used to be the chairman of the Education Committee — tries to create universal, full-day pre-K for early childhood education. Can’t get it done.

So rather than take no for an answer, he pulls together 200 mayors and says, “Look, I can’t get this done at the national level. But you guys are the only ones that could put some points on the board.” And you go to New York, go to Chicago, go to Boston, go to San Antonio, go across the country — mayors are now finding the local resources for universal, full-day pre-K. The need hadn’t disappeared. The government entity that could provide that new service did.

Now, Chicago, on the other side of the educational equation, we were the first city to create Chicago Star Scholarship: free community college tuition, books, and transportation if you got a B average in high school. No federal government, no state government. Nothing. They never even called. Even though 8,000 kids have gone through it. Eighty-one percent of that 8,000 are the first ones in the family to go to college. Boston’s copied it. Denver’s copied it. San Francisco’s copied it. Oakland’s copied it. But nobody expects Washington will do anything about this.

LEVITT: What I admire about what you did in education was, you were incredibly pragmatic. You looked at the situation. You said, “The school day in Chicago, when the school year is short, the kids are getting something like two or three less years of education over 12 years.” And you did what Clinton taught you to do, which was to fight doggedly at whatever cost with the end in mind and succeeded in doing that.

EMANUEL: I would not be sitting here across from you if it wasn’t for two things: the love of my parents and a good education. And in government you can affect one, you can’t affect the other. So I believed in that, and I made a pledge in the campaign of 2011 that our kids in Chicago had the shortest school day and the shortest school year in the United States of America. That is an unbelievable condemnation.

So before I was mayor even — I was mayor-elect — I changed the law so time was not in a contract negotiation, in cooperation with the teachers union. And remember, 84 percent of the children that go to the Chicago public schools are from poverty or below. If you were starting with a blank sheet and you want to end the cycle of poverty, would you draft a five-and-a-half-hour day? So that was one. And then two, in that same negotiation in 2012, we ended up producing the resources for full-day kindergarten for every child.

LEVITT: So I’ve studied education for a long time. And in the end, I got discouraged because I actually think that we are asking too much of our schools. Because absent not just the love of the parent, but the focus on education of the parent and whatnot, I think sometimes we think the schools are somehow going to make up for deficits that they can’t. So I’m a big believer in education, but I also think that people should be realistic.

EMANUEL: First of all, you are right and wrong. The whole debate, which is what drives me crazy— no one teacher, for 45, 50 minutes, can push back against all the social, economic, cultural deficits that walk into that room. It’s impossible. Impossible! Now, the principal creates the culture in that building, and it needs the entire building, not one room out of that building, to work.

No. 3, we’re going to have to be honest. Parents play a role in the child’s education. And we do have to ask our schools to take on more responsibility, especially for kids in poverty, because not every parent has the agency that Steve and Rahm have — and our partners, let’s be clear — to deal with the education of a child. And so, the discussion should be fulsome. Think about it as a parent and then back up all the things Steve and Rahm, Amy, I don’t know your spouse’s name — we do — and then what are the policies we can do that allow a child who doesn’t grow up in the Emanuel-Rule home, have the same opportunities, the same capacities?

And if you then put those in place— look, one statistic to illustrate this point: in the United States, 44 percent of all high school kids go to college. In Chicago, it’s 44 percent. We don’t have the same completion rate, but we do have the same acceptance rate, and attendance rate. Everything that would say, not that child, not that zip code, not that income, not that race, not that gender, we have proven the cynics wrong. Do we have challenges? Absolutely. Are we done? No. But to you that are depressed, but are passionate about studying it, I would tell you: it can be done. You’ll get your head beat in. I was 6’2” when I started this job, I’m 5’8” now. But you can do it. It can be done.

LEVITT: So, it’s not that you’re saying that the city, or the mayor, is necessarily the right way to get things done. You’re saying with the current dysfunction at the federal level, we’re just completely screwed unless the mayors step in and do this. Is that the right way to think about it?

EMANUEL: I would love a federal partner. I don’t want to do this on my own. You don’t have an option as a mayor to wait. And I think when you look at it, if you think the federal government is distant, your local government is pretty — you said before I ran, you and I had a conversation — pretty intimate. The economy is global; we’re seeing it right now with the virus. But all politics is local. And I think the residents want a government that they can influence, that influences their lives, and that’s more local than it is national.

LEVITT: And why do you think the mayors are becoming more important now? You think there’s more talent flowing into that job?

EMANUEL: Without a doubt. Just take politics nationally right now. So Mayor Pete wins Iowa and New Hampshire, Joe Biden runs this ad ridiculing streetlights, cobblestones, “When I’m dealing with Iran and healthcare,” and people go, “I don’t know, street lights and cobblestones sound pretty good to me.” That would be like, as the governor of Michigan said, “Just pave the damn roads.”

If you feel so alienated from your government, what is the one political government that still has legitimacy to say X or Y? And that’s your local government, and your local government official. And I think mayors today, for a host of reasons of leading the efforts on education, leading the efforts on infrastructure investment, leading the efforts on quality of life — all the things that touch your life is your local government.

LEVITT: Yeah, that’s true, and I have to say, I was highly skeptical of your premise when I started reading the book. But it was surprisingly persuasive.

EMANUEL: I walked in with a C and got a B-?

LEVITT: It’s an unusual book in a lot of ways. It’s part memoir. It’s part policy-wonkish or deep thinking.

EMANUEL: So I’d describe it as a third political science, a third of rethinking urban policy and politics, and as you remember, Winston Churchill, towards the end of his tenure, they said, “How do you think history will treat you?” And he goes, “Very well. I plan on writing it.”

LEVITT: I would say one of the most surprising things I’ve observed is the liveliness of cities. I mean, 30, 40 years ago, cities were dying. It was like everything was going against them. Crime, poor financing, bad schools. And technology, which was making it less and less important that people be face-to-face. And who would have ever predicted the turnaround?

EMANUEL: My dad and mom left Buena — I was in fourth, fifth grade — we moved to the suburbs. That’s not happening today. All the things that drove you out are driving you back in. And that’s a pretty unique social, cultural, and economic alteration.

LEVITT: So what do you think happened? Because it’s something I think about a lot. How did that happen? My own pet theory — probably I’m wrong — but my own theory is that it’s not just about jobs, but stuff has just gotten so cheap, right? So it used to be, when we were kids and the T.V. broke, it was a big deal. But now a T.V. broke, so you just buy a new one.

EMANUEL: You just watch it on your telephone.

LEVITT: So I think stuff got so cheap — and as people got richer, services became much more important in terms of the way people consume. And the cities are the only place to get those kind of services that people want. And that has been really important.

EMANUEL: A lot of people want the services or the benefits that come with the city living. The lakefront, the museums, the theater, the restaurants, the bars, in the same proximity of work. And that’s put pressure on cities to improve schools, improve their public transportation, improve their parks, their access, what parks offer.

And I’m proud of this as a former ballet dancer, for 100 reasons. We came up with this thing called Night Out in the Park, which was cultural attractions in our parks, from Shakespeare theater to Joffrey Ballet to the Chicago Symphony. If a family wanted those amenities, they’re out of reach, even for a middle- to upper-middle-class family. And so making sure that you can still have culture and all those things accessible and affordable.

And then, there’s a massive race across the globe that will never slow up for talent. And Chicago has an incredible institutional strength in this. G.E. Healthcare left London for Chicago. And McDonald’s years ago left for the suburbs, realized that they can’t find the talent they need staying where they are — the campus structure they have, the university they have. And they took it here to Chicago. Now, there are other things you got to do to make sure that everybody’s a winner at that, not just some people. But companies are chasing talent, and where you have talent, you’ll have success.

These days, Emanuel is a contributor for ABC News and an adviser for Centerview Partners, an investment bank. Given his lengthy experience in public service, I wanted to ask him one more question about how history will view the Covid-19 crisis.

LEVITT: Is this going to be seen as a blip? Is this going to be seen as fundamental?

EMANUEL: No, no, no. History will see this as a pivotal point where not only are we globally interdependent, but we’re going to start to try to find ways to unlock that interdependence. I don’t think our supply chain 10 years from now will look like it is today. We are not going to be this reliant on China for medical supplies, pharmaceutical supplies. It just won’t happen.

And public health is dependent on separation and segregation. The economy is built on a premise of integration and interdependence. Those two principles are in conflict right now and we have to figure how they can’t be in conflict, but more collaborative and cooperative. We’re going to have future pandemics and we’re not going to be able to survive as a society where you’re picking one or the other.

LEVITT: Those are wise words, Rahm, and I hope that we won’t let this crisis go to waste.

EMANUEL: Can I say, people rem— the quote was, “Never allow a good crisis to go to waste. It’s the opportunity to do the things you never thought possible and make them possible.” And so the emphasis was always not having a good crisis, not letting it go to waste, but what are you going to do that you thought, “Oh, I would love to do that, but I can’t for these 20 reasons.” The impetus then is to identify what are the key things in that crisis that have to get prepared for then the future. And that maybe makes us all, to quote you, “better data scientists.”

NARRATION — STEPHEN DUBNER:

That was former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, in conversation with Steve Levitt. We’d love to hear your feedback at radio@freakonomics.com, as well as suggestions for Levitt’s future interview subjects on his new podcast.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Harry Huggins. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Zack Lapinski, Matt Hickey, Daphne Chen, and Corinne Wallace; our intern is Isabel O’Brien. We had help this week from James Foster. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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

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  • Rahm Emanuel, former mayor of Chicago and Chief of Staff to President Obama.

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