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Episode Transcript

My guest today is Stephen Dubner. You no doubt know Stephen as the coauthor of the Freakonomics Books and the creator and host of Freakonomics Radio, what you probably don’t know is the unlikely path that led him to where he is today, including a stint as a rock star.

DUBNER: One reason I think our partnership has been so much fun for me is that it is a little bit like being in a band. There is nothing like being in a band. It is the weirdest, tightest, most exciting fraternity possible.

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

Stephen Dubner has interviewed me many dozens of times over the years. But this is the absolute first time that I’ll be interviewing him. It will be a very different experience for both of us. Or will it? My producer, Morgan, who knows us both well, she predicts that no matter what I do, by the end, Dubner will be interviewing me and not vice versa. Let’s see what happens.

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LEVITT: Stephen Dubner, after so many years of you interviewing me, I get to interview you for the very first time. How does it feel to be on the other side of the table? Are you maybe a little bit nervous?

DUBNER: I don’t think nervous is the right word. I think disgusted maybe. I mean, I love you. I love talking to you. But yeah, this is not what I was put on earth to do.

LEVITT: What were you put on earth to do? To interview people and not to be interviewed?

DUBNER: Yeah. I don’t like to be interviewed. But, I’ve brought it on myself a little bit, in that, the first couple books I wrote before I met you were sort of accidental memoirs. Like I did not set out to write about my family and myself. My first book literally grew out of an oral-history project on my family that I had started as a Christmas present for my siblings. I think everybody likes talking about themselves. I think we’re all narcissists to some degree. And I’m at least in the middle of the scale there. But it also just never felt like a natural or desirable thing. And maybe that’s just the family I grew up in. It was not a talk-about-yourself-a-lot family. So maybe I feel guilty about it. Maybe that’s what it is.  

LEVITT: I’m always a little bit nervous when you interview me. Just the fear of the unknown. But what you always do is you give me heads up about what you’ll ask me about, and it gives me a chance to prepare, and it lets me sound smarter and more articulate than I really am. So I was going to return the favor, but then I thought, damn, you’re so good to begin with. You don’t need any help.

DUBNER: Oh, that’s not what you really thought. You thought, “This is my chance to get back at him.”

LEVITT: I know how much you love to be prepared. So if I would’ve told you what I wanted to talk about, you would’ve wasted hours thinking about it in advance, don’t you think?

DUBNER: You’re probably not wrong there. I do like preparation.

LEVITT: And I know you would prepare because the very first thing I learned about you is that you always come prepared. I will never forget how prepared you were for our first meeting almost 20 years ago. So you flew to Chicago to interview me for a New York Times article. And as far as I could tell, you had read with care every academic article I had ever written. So 50 or 100 papers. You interviewed me all day long for three straight days, and you never ran out of questions.

DUBNER: Wasn’t that fun? Such a good time.

LEVITT: Oh — you talk about disgusted. I mean, I felt awful at the end of those three days. I’ve never experienced anything like that before or since. And it really taught me, I must say, a valuable lesson. It’s so much easier to ask questions than to answer them. Now, that’s probably obvious to anyone with decent social skills, but it had just never occurred to me. I was someone who just waited for people to ask me questions. And because I was a professor, people would ask me questions.

DUBNER: Well, you weren’t born a professor. Like, you were a curious young person. Yes? I’m sure you asked many questions.

LEVITT: I was the youngest in my family. I was silent. I never asked anybody anything. I just stood in the background and watched what happened. And that first time you came out to visit me for three days, I did not ask you a single question about yourself, but you asked me roughly a thousand questions. It wasn’t until about 15 minutes before you had to leave to catch a flight home that I finally asked you a question. I asked you who else you’d interviewed in the past. And you said, “Oh, Steven Spielberg, and the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s interesting. I would’ve so much rather spent these last three days hearing you talk about your life than me jabbering on about mine.” And I’ve made it a point really ever since to try to listen more than I talk. And that was one of the first of many lessons that you taught me. 

DUBNER: I will say, as selfish as it can seem to talk about oneself and be the person who’s answering the questions, I would argue, in defense of you, that it is extremely selfish to be the question asker all the time, like I’ve been. Because you do put yourself a little bit behind a veil. I mean, the reason I loved the idea from a very early age of being a reporter or a journalist or a writer, was because I was really, really shy as a kid. And I think a lot of kids are shy. And I also really wanted to know a lot about the world, which I would argue a lot of kids are in that position. This was a different time and place — there was no internet, there was no cable T.V. Information felt much more valuable and scarcer. But then, even when there were sources of it, I felt constrained to pursue it because, who am I? I’m just, like, a kid. And so, journalism for me became an avenue by which I could ask these questions — you know, there was, like, a reason to do it. And people would answer them. It was unbelievable. It just felt like a magic trick or alchemy. Although, in just the last year or so, a couple people have called it to my attention that some people really don’t like to be asked questions about themselves. And I guess that seems obvious now when I say it, but to me, it never was. So I think I’m probably considered fairly obnoxious by some people that I’ve come across in my life. I don’t mean to be. I like to be a nice person. But I do think that being a zealous question asker is thrilling and selfish and can turn some people off. But I don’t care much about that. I’m just going to keep going.

LEVITT: So my own experience, and maybe it’s just because my own stories are so boring, is that when I ask people questions instead of talking about myself, I get the impression at the end of the conversation that they like me much better when they’ve been doing the talking than when I’ve been doing the talking. So there might be some people who are offended by questions. But it’s interesting because my kids are often embarrassed by the questions I ask.  

DUBNER: The questions you ask of them or on your show?

LEVITT: No, no, of their friends. So their friends will come over. And not in a bad way, but I’ll just say in the nicest possible way, “Has it been hard watching your parents get divorced?” And my own experience with hard times is that people like to talk about hard times. Everyone says, “Oh, I’m afraid to ask about that, because I don’t want to remind them.” But anyone who’s lived through hard times knows, if your parents are getting divorced, I’m sure you’re thinking about it all the time. You never forget that your parents are getting divorced. Their friends always give me really good answers. But my kids always berate me afterwards.

DUBNER: That’s something I learned from you. I remember when we first met, you were talking about your son, Andrew, who had died maybe two or three years before we met. And you said that it’s this terrible event in your life. And of course, you think about it a lot. And people that you know, friends and so on, of course they want to help, but they are so scared or devoutly against bringing it up because they think it will be too painful for you but that you really do want to talk about it. And I’ll never forget that. I think you’re right. However, I think there are a lot more people in the world like your kids than there are like you. But there was this paper — we did an episode of Freak Radio about it a couple years ago — about sensitive questions. And it turns out that if you ask or are asked sensitive questions you rate the conversation much better. But most people certainly don’t buy into that.

LEVITT: So you left, mercifully, after three days of interviewing me. But I did go right home and I looked up that article about Ted Kaczynski that was in Time magazine. And it is such an interesting article. Doesn’t it start with you asking him whether he thinks he’s insane or something like that?

DUBNER: I think that’s true. I did visit him in prison. He was in this — I think he still is in this same supermax prison in Colorado. There was a World Trade Center bomber there. There were a bunch of other really bad guys

LEVITT: Wait, did he ask you to come out and interview him? Or did you ask him if you could come out?

DUBNER: I asked him. I was asked by an editor to write a piece on David Kaczynski, who was Ted’s brother, the one who had figured out from the manifesto that had been published by the Unabomber that the Unabomber was his brother, and sent, the police, or the F.B.I., to get him. And so that was a very complicated family dynamic. And I was writing this piece about the brother and his wife. So I’d spent a fair amount of time interviewing them in a couple contexts. And then I learned, somehow, that Ted Kaczynski had written from prison a book and was trying to get it published. And so, I was able to get hold of that unpublished manuscript and able to contact the publisher who was working with him and then pursued an interview with him in prison. I mean, it was a bizarre and fascinating conversation. Much less bizarre in some ways than you’d think, including the fact, as you indicated, that I just sort of wanted to get a check on what he thought was his mental state. He thought his mental state was excellent. And he really thought he was a crusader in a way. I think he really justified his actions. And so, anyway, I wrote this article, which then got caught up in a bizarre publishing moment. It was going to be published in this magazine called Talk, a pretty brand new magazine run by Tina Brown, and I believe owned or co-owned by Miramax, the movie company, which was owned in turn, by Disney. And as it turns out, Disney had made a deal with the brother David Kaczynski, about whom the article had started, to make a film, I guess, about him. And suddenly, my writing this piece that now included the Unabomber himself, not just the brother, made the story a little bit more complicated. I didn’t know any of that at the time. All I knew is that I started getting edits on this piece at the last minute that were bizarro. And I couldn’t figure out what was going on. They didn’t tell me anything, even though they knew some stuff about this ownership issue. And, ultimately, I said to them, “Listen, you’re changing the piece in such a way that I don’t want to put my name on it.” I essentially pulled the piece. And then brought it to Time Magazine, and they were like, “Yeah.” And, they published it. I remember a couple weeks after, I got a letter from Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, being unhappy. I think his brother David was unhappy as well. I think there was some talk about Ted, I believe, wanting to sue Time Magazine. And I went to Walter Isaacson, he was then the editor of Time Magazine. I said, “Oh, Walter, I got this letter. It sounds like Ted might want to sue you and me, and I’m really sorry if it comes to that.” He said, “You kidding me? Getting sued by the Unabomber, that’s the best thing that could happen to Time Magazine in the last 20 years.”

LEVITT: So we ended up eventually co-authoring Freakonomics and three more books. And one of the most remarkable things about you and I, we’ve been working together for almost 20 years. Sometimes very intensely, sometimes less so. But I cannot for the life of me remember a single time that we fought or argued. I mean, I can’t even remember disagreeing about anything, even about where we’re going to go for dinner and having to make a compromise. It’s just been really easy. Is that your experience also? Or is it just an example of me being oblivious?

DUBNER: No, I would say that’s mostly my experience too.

LEVITT: Can you remember being angry at me?

DUBNER: No. We do disagree. We’ve disagreed plenty, but we don’t have what most people would call disagreements, like, where it becomes a problem. Like, I think there have been a lot of times where you’ve explained something to me, and I’d say, “Oh yeah, that makes a lot more sense. Let’s do that.” And maybe once in a while, even the other way around. I think part of it may be because you and I are on some levels about as different as two humans could be.

LEVITT: I think that’s right. I think there really were clear domains in which we would defer to each other. But I have to say, when we would write books, you would write them. Let’s be totally clear. You would put the words on the paper. And it was like Christmas every day, because you, at the end of the day, would send me 300 or 400 of the most beautifully written words of all time. You slaved all day to write those words. And I would sit back, and I would read them in about one minute. And then, I would react to them. And I always expected you to get prickly about it because you’re the writer. Like, how can I talk about your word choice or suggest to change the ending? But I was amazed at how open minded you would be about that. You take enormous pride in what you do, but not with hubris.

DUBNER: I think you’re selling yourself short on how much you participated, especially in the first book, Freakonomics. Because we talked through a lot of that before I would write — sometimes in person, sometimes on the phone. And I always took a lot of notes. I think there was a lot of you, not just in, obviously, the research, but in the way that we told the stories, too. A lot of tone and voice and attitude. So plainly, yeah, it was my words, but I was really trying to create this sort of hybrid voice that is different from the way you would talk or write on your own, or the way I would talk or write on my own. And also, I think you are a really good storyteller. So I actually felt like the collaboration was really strong in that way. I wouldn’t want people to get the impression that you just did the research papers, you turned them over to me, I wrote the book, you said, “Yeah, that’s fine, maybe tweak this.” It was quite a bit more involved in that. Do you remember I was in Chicago staying at your house, sleeping on the couch in the living room when you lived in Oak Park? It was the World Series, I remember. And I had a really bad cold, so I ended up staying up all night. This was like the beginning of our starting to write Freakonomics in your office. Do you remember this at all? It was horrible.

LEVITT: Not at all. Not at all.

DUBNER: Oh, my god. It was so bad.

LEVITT: I can’t believe you were sleeping on a couch.

DUBNER: You had like 18 children. There were no beds available. So for anybody who’s ever used to doing something on their own and then tries to do that same thing with someone else, like, cook or whatever, it’s just weird. Now, you had collaborated on a lot of academic papers, so you plainly knew how to do this, but this was a different kind of writing. And we would sit in your office. And you would just kind of talk, and I would kind of type, and you would talk. It was just horrible. And then, we’d go eat. And when we’d eat, we would just talk casually, and it was fun again. Oh, there’s this story, there’s this research, and so on. And we did two or three days of it. And I was like, “Oh sh*t, this is not going to work.” It wasn’t a failure of you or me necessarily, it was just, like, this wasn’t the right way to dance this dance. From my perspective as a writer. I couldn’t find a way to make it work like that. So anyway, this night of the World Series game, sleeping on the couch in your house, and I was up pretty late for the game. And then, I couldn’t sleep because I wasn’t feeling well. I just stayed up all night. And I wrote a version of what’s the opening, the intro, the prelude of Freakonomics. And the next morning, I remember pushing the laptop in front of you. And I said, “Here, take a look at this.” And I remember you read it, and you said, “That sounds nothing like me.” And I thought, oh sh*t, a bridge too far. And then you said, “But man, I really like it.” And so, I thought, “Oh, this can work.” I found what I thought was for us, the right tone, the right mode of collaboration. It was kind of lucky, but yeah, it worked.

LEVITT: We created this joint voice that was much cooler and more interesting than either of our real voices. But we both got really good at it. And we — I think we — could both get in that voice. And I think it was hard for people to tell who was actually writing it, me or you. I mean, your writing is better, but the voice was so powerful that we did become more interchangeable than one might have thought.

DUBNER: I think there were also like rhetorical flourishes that you and I both liked, like, question asking. How many book chapters and articles that we wrote did we create a headline that was in the form of a question? We both just have a sort of, occasionally, juvenile-ish sense of curiosity and humor and so on, but also just the way to set up a story. One thing that I learned that I really liked from reading your papers and other econ. papers is that econ. papers have a structure that most other papers don’t — there’s the abstract where they say, “This is what’s going to happen.” Then, “This is the argument. These are the data we’re going to use. This is the methodology.” But then, there’s also the entertainment of other potential theories that might be right. Then, “I’m going to explain why those aren’t.” And that, to me, is a really powerful form of rhetorical argument. Because writing doesn’t persuade me when it doesn’t even acknowledge the components of a different argument. That I think is something where I, as a writer, learned a lot, weirdly enough, from reading these mostly horribly-written academic papers about econ.

LEVITT: I think another reason that we got along, is that we just had a lot of joint success. We had money and accolades and opportunities. And it’s just easy to get along when everything’s going great, when there’s not much scarcity. There’s always something to split. My single favorite story about us is what happened when it came time to negotiate how we’d split the payments over Freakonomics. Because we had gotten this big advance to write a book together, but we’d never actually talked about who would get what share. And you came to me, and you said, kind of nervously because we didn’t know each other very well, you said you were thinking a 60-40 split would be fair. And I said, “Well, I was thinking two-thirds, one-third.” And I remember you got this kind of glum look on your face. And you said, “Well I just don’t think this is going to work because I’m not willing to do the book for a one-third share.” And I said, “Wait, I meant two-thirds for you and one-third for me.” And you said, “I meant 60 percent for you and 40 for me.” So we settled on 50-50 in what must have been the easiest negotiation of all time. And I think the fact that we always felt there was surplus there kind of set the tone for what was going to follow.

DUBNER: If I was a professional marriage counselor and I heard you tell that story, I would so steal that. Like, I would make that the core story for every couple that came in trouble. Just split it down the middle. It is just so much easier to give more than is expected and to grubbly take less than expected. Because the world is so full of people trying to take to the extent of stealing that if you can just establish yourself as a person who’s not only not going to steal, but you’re actually just going to give — and this is what I’ve tried to do as Freakonomics Radio, which has been my main thing for 12 years now, as it grew to have other outside partners and so on. It’s really exciting to try to be the kind of partner where all your other partners get better off, and that you don’t feel like you’re extracting. What do you call that in econ?

LEVITT: It’s really like when I had Barry Nalebuff, the economist, on the show.

DUBNER: I liked that show.

LEVITT: His thing was, look, you try to make the surplus as big as possible. And if the surplus is really big, when you split it 50-50, everybody’s happy. And I think that’s really your principle, as well. Let’s just build surplus.

DUBNER: Yeah, grow the pie, right?

I’ll be right back with more of my conversation with Stephen Dubner after this short break.

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LEVITT: One of the lessons I’ve learned from doing this podcast is that life is long, that there’s time to dabble, and to change paths a few times, and still succeed wildly. And I think you’re a great example because your first career was not in journalism. It wasn’t in podcasting. It was as a rockstar in a band called The Right Profile. And I’ve lined up a short clip here. Let’s listen to you. This is Stephen Dubner at the reunion concert in 2013.

DUBNER: That is rough. That was the first time in my life I ever lost my voice, by the way.

LEVITT: I have to say I didn’t expect you to sound so good. Now, maybe it was just because you lost your voice, but you’ve got this angry growl going on. It’s so different than your everyday personality. And I have to say in the video, which people can see on YouTube, you look like you’re having so much fun on stage making music. A lot more fun than when you and I are onstage speaking together. Did you love being onstage? Did you love making music?

DUBNER: One reason I think our partnership has been so much fun for me, and I hope for you too, is that it is a little bit like being in a band. There is nothing like being in a band. It is the weirdest, tightest, most exciting fraternity possible. It is also a little bit like alchemy. You are just a bunch of people who grab these instruments, and then most times it fails. But when it works, when you play together well, and you start to write songs that are good, and you start to perform, and people like it — it is otherworldly. It is supremely, intoxicatingly fun.   Then I ended up deciding that was not a life that I wanted, and so I quit. And it was really, really, really hard to give it up. But it was definitely the right move for me. My life has turned out much more like the life I wanted than it would’ve been if I had been a rockstar. 

LEVITT: So Clive Davis, the legendary music producer, he comes to C.B.G.B.’s one night, sees you playing, and then he signs you to this major label record contract. And I’m curious — the band soldiered on, they thought they were going to be a success. They never were. They never were a commercial success. Did you leave only because it wasn’t fun? Or could you tell it just wasn’t going to work sooner than other people? 

DUBNER: Oh, no. No, no, no, no. I actually think we all thought it was going to work. We signed with a big label, Arista, which probably wasn’t great for us because we were a little bit more of a ragged, slightly punky, slightly country, slightly bluesy band. We were on the label now of Whitney Houston. And, you know, look, amazing singer, plainly, but it probably wasn’t quite the right label. I do remember making a cassette tape, of what I felt were really great hits of the last like 10 or 20 years by bands — Clash, Talking Heads, Paul Simon — hits that I thought were amazingly great songs. And I remember the name I gave the cassette was, “What’s Wrong with Us?” “Us” being like my band. Because what was happening is we were writing a lot of songs. And Arista kept saying, “You know, uh, I don’t see a hit there.” And it was like, “Oh, God.” We already had 30 or 40 songs when we were signed. We’d been at it for a while. “Why did you want to sign us if you didn’t think what we do is what you want to put out?” And it wasn’t quite that. It’s just that there are conventional wisdoms in every industry. That said, we were just starting to be a really, really good band. So I would say the prime reasons why I quit — it was really Bruce Springsteen’s fault. Did I ever tell you about this Bruce Springsteen encounter? I feel like such an old guy. “Let me tell you about my old rock and roll stories.” Okay. I’m in this band. We’re living in North Carolina at the time. We just got signed to a manager. These great guys in New York. And they represented some other bands that I loved, including The Replacements, and a band called The Del Fuegos out of Boston, who I absolutely loved. Their first record had just come out, and it was just a great rock and roll record. And Bruce Springsteen happened to be in Greensboro, North Carolina at the Coliseum. And The Del Fuegos happened to be playing at this little bar in Greensboro, North Carolina and I went to say hello, to meet them. So I’m standing there in the backstage area of this club, which is literally like the beer warehouse. And in walks Bruce Springsteen and Nils Lofgren, his guitar player. And The Fuegos were super, super cool. They were also super, super stoned. So their response was like, “Hey, Bruce.” But they were extremely stoked. And he had heard their record and liked it. And he came out. And then, there was a little chat about this and that. And I’m not saying a word. It’s like The Fuegos, Bruce and Nils, and me, a nobody. He had just become huge. I guess this was his Born in the U.S.A. tour when he went from being like a guy that a lot of people love to a guy that was everywhere all the time. I admired him a great deal. And he was talking about how his life had changed. And the message I got was to the effect that if I knew that this was what it’s like to really be a rockstar, I don’t know if I ever would’ve done it in the first place. He wasn’t really miserable. But he was pointing out all the downsides of the obvious upside of being a rock star. And man, that just really planted a seed in me. So even though it was thrilling to meet him, and we toured later with the Fuegos. All of these things were extremely, extremely fun. But somehow, it was planted in my mind that maybe this is not the dream that I want for me, and so I should stop. And so I stopped a little bit reluctantly, but in the end, gratefully.

LEVITT: You said it almost like you regret that he told you that, but how great that you figured that out before you spent another 10 years touring to only find out that it was true?

DUBNER: I think one reason that I kind of had it in me to quit was my mother had been a quitter. She had been a ballerina who was on the brink of maybe something great. This was a long, long, long time ago. And she kind of had a religious awakening that that was not the life she wanted. You and I have talked a lot about quitting and just how valuable it can be to not succumb to this whole sunk-cost idea. Like, well, I’ve gone this far, I should keep going. I don’t know what it was within me that made it viable to quit like that, but I’m really grateful that I had that. Whether it came from my mother or from Bruce Springsteen or some kind of God or whatever. 

LEVITT: Well, it wasn’t like you left the band for some super lucrative gig either, right? You went back to school to Columbia to get a master’s degree in fiction writing. How did you even pay for school? You couldn’t have made much in the band, and you grew up as one of eight kids — small town, upstate New York; raised by a single mom after your dad had died when you were young. What were you doing for money living in New York at that time?  

DUBNER: Yeah, I was very poor. So I had a girlfriend, she was an actress and a student. She was still in college. And she had an acting teacher who became a sort of mentor and friend of mine. He could be very mean, very tough, but he had a lot of maxims that turned out to be really useful for me. And one of them was “your choice is your talent.” And this came from an acting teacher named Stella Adler, and she got it from Stanislavski, who was kind of the pioneer of a certain kind of acting. 

LEVITT: The method acting.

DUBNER: Yeah, and so this idea — your choice is your talent —  became a really powerful motivator for me. Especially when you have no money and you’re looking around the world and you think that the way to get things is with money, you realize, well, then I’m not going to get anything. But if I can make good choices and try to take whatever talent or curiosities I have and turn them into something bigger than they are now, then that’s maybe the way to go. So between him and my girlfriend at the time, they persuaded me to apply to Columbia, which I don’t think I even would’ve done. It’s like, really? Columbia? That’s one of the greatest writing programs in the world. I certainly don’t deserve to be there. But I did apply. And honestly, I was a little bit surprised to get in. And I did have to borrow money, for the first year. I also knew how to do word processing, which at the time was a very valuable skill because most people didn’t own computers. So I had a couple clients. One guy was a management consultant, and another was a novelist. And I was a really fast typist. And so I would make $20, $25 bucks an hour in my spare time. So I could support myself that way. Then my second year at Columbia, I worked really hard to get a teaching fellowship. And that gave me tuition exemption and a stipend of like $3,000. And I thought, “Oh my God, I am loaded. Like college is free. I have $3,000 to spend.” I mean, making a living doing what I love doing has always been the balancing act. And so, the fact that what we did with Freakonomics, and now there was all this surplus, you know, to me, everything after that is gravy. The lesson though is that once you have the gravy, once you have the surplus, you should devote yourself even more to doing the thing that you really think is the good and the right thing because like money is plainly not the object.

LEVITT: It strikes me, you must have been enormously self-confident to think that getting an M.F.A. in fiction was a sensible choice. Fiction writing is such a winner-take-all profession. A handful of folks have incredible success, and most others never make a dime.

DUBNER: No, I was not confident. And I recognize it was quite likely fairly stupid. I would’ve gotten an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing at Columbia, but their nonfiction program at the time was like tiny and bad. But my plan was I’d get a degree. I would be able to teach colleges, teach writing, and then write my novels. And I thought I would use the teaching to subsidize my writing. And then, if the writing worked out, it would work out. And if it didn’t, at least I’d be teaching. So that was the plan. The problem was in my second year of the M.F.A. program, I did teach what’s essentially freshman comp. It’s an amazing course called “Logic and Rhetoric,” which taught me a great deal about writing myself, not just about teaching writing. And that’s when I discovered, unlike you, Levitt, I did not want to be a professor at all. I don’t know if you agree with this, but my conclusion is that to be a good teacher, you have to be pretty selfless. Like, you have to really care about the work that the other people are doing. You have to really care that they are learning what you’re trying to teach. I just wanted to write. I just wanted to go interview people. I had a million ideas. So, that was another thing I quit. I was in the English department at Columbia University. I had another year of teaching lined up. And I said, I’m going to go do journalism.” So I quit so much. Levitt, you’re like one of the few things I’ve never quit.

LEVITT: No, not yet. 

DUBNER: You’re like my cigarettes. I just can’t shake them.

LEVITT: Against the odds, you did turn that degree into something. You got a job at the New York Times. And then, eventually, as you mentioned before, you published these two successful memoirs, and you had a lucrative third book contract. You were a big shot in New York literary circles.

DUBNER: I was — I was a medium shot.

LEVITT: And then, you met me. And that put you in a tough position, right? Because we got offered a bunch of money to write the book that would become Freakonomics. But for someone of your status, it was kind of embarrassing and degrading to write what’s called an “and book”. And by that, I mean, Freakonomics was by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. And by putting us out of alphabetical order, it was like I was the star, and you were the hired hand.

DUBNER: I’m like Quasimodo.

LEVITT: You had to swallow a lot of pride to write Freakonomics. Why’d you do it? For the cash? 

DUBNER: Not for the cash, because honestly, even though the deal for Freakonomics was relatively large for book deals, my half wasn’t that much larger than the contracts I was already getting for other books. So it wasn’t really that. It’s funny, I like your question. So after I wrote about you for the New York Times Magazine, you were getting contacted by people who wanted you to write a book, correct? 

LEVITT: Correct. And I said no. Well, actually, what I said is “Go read a few of my academic papers and then come back if you still think you’re going to want me to write a book.” And they never came back.

DUBNER: And then, I was getting offers to write a book about you. And I definitely said no to those because, A, I did have a two-book contract and I was already pretty deep into one of those books, which was about, really, like, behavioral economics. But also, I didn’t want to write a book about an economist and his research when I’d just written a Times Magazine article about that. Like, to me, it would make sense for you to write a book.  

LEVITT: Suzanne Gluck, our now literary agent, she was the matchmaker. So my recollection is Suzanne came to me and said, “All these people want you to write a book. Why don’t you write a book?” And I said, “I’m not going to write a book. I could not possibly write a book.” And she said, “Well, why don’t you write a book with Dubner?” And I said, “With Dubner?” 

DUBNER: You said, “I hate Dubner. I’m not going to do that.”

LEVITT: I think I said, “I hate Dubner.” And she said, “Well, tell you what, let’s just get you two on a call and see what happens.”  

DUBNER: Levitt, let’s unpack this “hating of Dubner” a little bit. What do we mean when we say you hate me?  

LEVITT: Okay, so putting myself back in the shoes of who I was when I met you, all I cared about was having time to myself.

DUBNER: So why did you have four children? 

LEVITT: Well, that was part of why I needed the time to myself because I’d already screwed up and had too many kids. And so, then I had no time to myself. So any morsels of time I could sneak around the edges, I wanted. And honestly, my animosity towards you really came from a very particular thing, which was you said, “Hey, could I come out and interview you for a morning?” And I was really right on the margin. I didn’t really want a New York Times piece written about me, but, well, I kind of did, maybe a little bit I thought it would be cool. 

DUBNER: Also, your mom really liked the Times Magazine. 

LEVITT: Yeah, my mom would like it. And so, I said yes, but I was really right on the margin. I thought, “Is it worth a morning? Barely.” But then, you came out and we spent a pleasant morning, admittedly. And then you said, “Well, I don’t really have any plans for the afternoon. Why don’t I just hang out in the afternoon?” And I so wanted to say, “No, go away,” but you were about to write a piece about me in the New York Times. And so, I felt like I had to be polite and kind in a way that I wouldn’t normally want to be. I felt very helpless in your presence because I didn’t feel like I could send you away, and you wouldn’t leave.

DUBNER: So you felt manipulated maybe by me a little bit?

LEVITT: Yeah, exactly. I was overwhelmed.

DUBNER: Mm hmm. That’s a reason to hate a person.

LEVITT: But being more serious for a second, I remember you being treated so poorly, just being completely objective. I was singled out as a celebrity to go on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Colbert Report, when you obviously would’ve been so much better than me at it. I get named to Time‘s “100 People Who Shape the World”. You get nothing. I don’t think I’m making this up. I think I remember that the publisher even initially insisted that your name had to be in a smaller typeface.

DUBNER: I think that’s right. Yeah.

LEVITT: On the cover of Freakonomics. I mean, did that not all feel awful to you when you and I both knew that you were, at least an equal partner, probably more than an equal partner in everything we were doing? 

DUBNER: Look, I’m human, certainly. Would I have liked to go on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart? I guess so. But if I recall correctly, I came that night just to hang out. And I think I brought my nephew who was a super big Jon Stewart fan, and Jon was amazingly great to him. Like, that kind of thing did not bother me. And maybe this comes from having been in a band growing up playing baseball and basketball. I loved being on a team. It’s, to me, a similar feeling of being in a family. And so, when one of you is getting some opportunity or attention, and it’s not you, it still feels really good. I wouldn’t say that I was that burned up about it. And honestly, I mean, I have an ego like everybody, maybe more than some, less than others, but I feel like I know more writers who could have written a book with you than I knew people as weird as you who had the material about which to write a book. Also, like you said before, there was surplus. Like, if I’m not going to be happy about this unbelievably lucky outcome for me as a writer, I’m going to be able to actually feed and educate my children as a writer living in New York City. That is unbelievably fortunate. So, no, I wasn’t bitter or angry about it at all. Plus, Levitt, you have to realize I had a secret plan, which is I thought, Someday there will be a thing called podcasting, and I will make one.”  

LEVITT: What has been really fascinating for me to watch over the years is that you did, you started the Freakonomics Radio podcast, and you built it up into this amazing institution that it’s become. And then, the scale shifted, right? It used to be that I’d get many more speaking invitations, and I could charge a higher fee to go speak than you could.

DUBNER: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You got more money than me for speaking?

LEVITT: But then, slowly, you became the one that was far more in demand. You became the superstar, and I became the sidekick. That’s really the way it should have been all along. And I think it’s awesome that the market sorted this out eventually, and you got the reward that you deserved. And I really mean that. I really mean that.

DUBNER: That’s nice of you to say. Truly. I don’t know if it’s accurate. I think of me as me and you as you. And then, this thing we did and do and made together is like a whole other thing. Obviously, we’re not reproducing and making children, that kind of thing, but the whole enterprise does feel like having a second family. And I’ve loved being in this weird little family with you. So it’s nice of you to say that the markets have sorted out. Honestly, what I think it is is I, by accident, started doing a thing, which was a podcast, that happened to intersect with the market for podcasts coming from zero and going to a lot. And I was kind of in the right place at the right time with it. Now, that said, once the show had an audience, then I thought, “Oh crap, people are really listening. I better, put all my abilities into this.” And so yeah, I’ve been working probably between 60 to 80 hours a week on this for 12 years, but I like it, so that’s cool.

You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Stephen Dubner. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about what would have happened if they’d never written Freakonomics.

*      *      *

So far, we’ve barely talked about podcasting. I want to turn to that subject now. What makes podcasting so special that Stephen stopped writing books? And he’s been doing Freakonomics Radio for a long time, does he plan on doing it forever? Or maybe he’s got something new and exciting looming on the horizon.

LEVITT: So you got me into podcasting, and one of the things that I find really surprising and interesting about the podcast is that I have conversations on the podcast that I’d otherwise never have, even with people I know well. We talk all the time, but honestly, we’ve never once talked about how mistreated you were and then how our roles reversed, like we just talked about. And when I had my daughters, Lily and Amanda, on this show, we had a conversation like we’d never had before. And I don’t totally understand why. I mean, you’ve got a lot more experience as an interviewer than I do. Do you understand why it’s like that?

DUBNER: Yes and no. I would say mostly no. I do have this quasi-mantra I think about whenever I’m trying to start a new show or a new type of episode or something like that. Or when I’m trying to interview someone where I feel there may be a real difficulty in getting the real person, which happens a lot if you’re interviewing people in government or public life and so on. The mantra is for me and the guest: Talk like no one’s listening. And it would seem paradoxical that you’re going to sit there with a microphone in an artificial setting not even seeing a person like we are right now, because you’re in Germany, I’m in New York. Like, it seems nuts that this would actually create more intimacy than being with someone face to face. But then I think back about like when you’re a teenager, and you’re on the telephone, and you’re just like in your room, and let’s say you’re trying to call someone for a date or you’re mad about being left off the starting team of your basketball team or something, and you’re trying to talk it through with somebody. The first couple minutes you are hyper aware of the context and how you’re feeling, but then somehow through this weird construct of you’re holding this piece of plastic to your ear and talking down the line to someone else, that all melts away, and it becomes a totally different and intimate conversation. It’s called podcasting, but it’s exactly the same as radio was for many, many, many years. And there’s something about that super, super narrow, artificial construct that creates this intimacy that you just forget after a while. I love creating. I love being around people who are creative. And this medium happens to have this weird set of tools that lets all different kinds of people get at different angles of creativity or even if it’s not creativity, just like reality. Just people being real, not B.S.-ing. Telling you things that they really believe, telling you things that you didn’t know, which is exciting. I’ve probably said things in this conversation to you that I have never said to my wife, even. So yeah, it’s a little bit weird.

LEVITT: So you’ve bragged about what a quitter you are. You’ve quit everything except me — I’m your cigarette — and podcasting.

DUBNER: But I’ve been with you longer than podcasting, so you’re really the thing I can’t quit. Also, I’ve been married longer than I’ve been with you, too, so just to be fair. 

LEVITT: That’s true. But you said 60 to 80 hours a week on your podcast. You’ve done 500 episodes just on Freak Radio, not to mention No Stupid Questions, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. Are you thinking about quitting, or no?

DUBNER: I’ve definitely thought about it because the one thing that I’m really scared of in life, like to the point of allergic to, is being bored. I just think bad things happen when you’re bored, not just to me. I think a lot of people do a lot of really stupid stuff out of boredom. So there have been times where Freakonomics Radio started to feel too rote, like a pattern. Oh yeah, I’ll come up with another idea. And oh yeah, we’ll interview five people, three economists, a C.E.O., blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And whenever I start to get that feeling, I do start to think about what I should do next. I will say, in the last couple years, I don’t know why, but I’ve been totally re-energized. Partly because as the company’s grown with adding shows like your show and Freakonomics M.D. and then some other shows that we’re starting to develop. I’m not a natural-born entrepreneur, but I love pretending that I can sort of do it. I love exercising those muscles. And as a result of that, we’ve built our company up in a way where we’ve brought on new producers and some new senior people to where I now have support in making Freakonomics Radio that is much more than ever before, which means that I get to spend a lot of time really just doing the actual work. Thinking about the idea. Like, we just got back from England and Scotland doing all these interviews for a couple different series we’re doing where we’re just going out with microphones, talking to all sorts of people of the sort that we haven’t talked to in three years, partly because of Covid, but also just because you get in a rut. So lately we’ve been breaking a lot of ruts. The other thing is Levitt, I don’t know what I would do — like, I have no skills. I can’t be an employee. I’m terrible in meetings. I’m obnoxious. I always say what I actually think. I did think about rabbinical school, but I’m not going to do that. And then, a couple years ago, I was thinking about winding it down and I want to say — is there a senator from Iowa named Chuck Grassley?

LEVITT: Yes. That’s true.

DUBNER: And I think he’s like 180 years old. He’s like really old. And he announced that he would be running again for re-election. And someone asked him like, “Really? Like, why?” And he said, “Well, I think I’m still pretty good at what I do. I think I make a contribution to the world. I really like it. And what else am I going to do?” And when I heard him say that — I’m not sure if that’s an accurate portrayal of what he said, but that’s the message I took — I thought, “God, what am I thinking about? I’m like 50-something. I love doing this. What am I even thinking about?” Also, one thing I’ve learned from you, it is so much harder to start something than to keep doing it. This is a thing that’s taken 12 years to get it where I sort of like it. So I don’t think that’s a sunk-cost problem I have. I think that’s like appreciating that I built a nice house and now I want to live in it.

LEVITT: I mean, anytime I hear someone talk with the kind of excitement you just expressed about podcasting, quitting is not even on the table. It’s like it doesn’t even make any sense. So you spend all day practically interviewing people — you have been, for a long time, and especially now with the podcast. How does that affect when you’re outside of the studio? Are you tired of asking questions? Or is that the only thing you know how to do? 

DUBNER: It’s more the latter. It’s not like I’m interviewing people all day, every day by a long shot. It’s only a weekly show. It’s not like a daily three-hour talk show. So I’ll probably have typically three to six interviews in a given week. And each of those are, let’s say between 60 minutes and two, sometimes two-and-a-half hours. So most of the time is actually spent reading and researching and prepping for the interview and then doing the interview. But yeah, absolutely, you’re spending a lot of time thinking about asking questions and then asking questions, and then listening to answers and trying to get right to the next best question. It is a little bit hard to turn off. I’m not a super social person. Levitt, maybe a little bit more sociable than you. Like one of the reasons I became a writer, I love being alone. I just really, really like it. I love reading and thinking and writing and all that. But yeah, I think that my question asking does fairly unbeknownst to me, trickle into an obnoxious torrent of questions that most people really just want me to shut up. And Ellen, my wife, she will often be the same because even though she was a photographer who worked in journalism. And she was a great journalist; she just did it in a different medium. And sometimes when we, or mostly I am grilling someone, but maybe Ellen a little bit too, she will say to the person, apologetically, “We’re journalists. This is what we do. You’ll have to forgive us. And you don’t have to answer any of these questions.” But like when I listen to your show, I would guess that you think this is true: Most people, if you ask a question, almost any question, and it’s from a genuine place of wanting to know, wanting to figure out, wanting to solve, I think almost everybody really wants to return that serve. I mean, that’s why you do it. And most of the returns of serve you get aren’t that interesting, to be honest. That’s why we do five to 10 hours of interviews for every one-hour episode of Freakonomics Radio. Most of it you want to get rid of. It’s like Michelangelo was asked, “How did you make David?” This is I’m sure a fake story. And he said, “Well, it’s easy. You just cut away all the parts that don’t belong there.” And if you think about a finished piece like that, then it lets you not feel so bad about leaving out the vast majority of it. I call it the Maple Syrup School of Broadcast Journalism. Have I shared that with you the metaphor?

LEVITT: No. I don’t know.

DUBNER: So have you ever made maple syrup, Levitt? 

LEVITT: Believe it or not, I have, because my grandparents had a lake house, and we would make maple syrup every fall.

DUBNER: So you know it is extremely labor intensive. You have to go out to all the trees, you have to bang a tap into the tree, hang a bucket on it. You come back, you gather up the sap, you dump it in some big barrel. Then, you boil it over a low fire for hours and hours and hours and hours. And you get like this tiny little thing of maple syrup. And you’re like, “Oh my God, why do we do that?” And that’s what making Freakonomics Radio is like. So you have to really like maple syrup to do all the work. 

LEVITT: I love that. Do you ever go back and look at things you’ve written in the past, Freakonomics or anything else?

DUBNER: I almost never do. I had a conversation the other day with Michael Lewis, who you did that really good episode on PIMA with. We were talking about Moneyball. It’s the 20th anniversary of Moneyball and he said he’s never gone back to read the book, which, as a civilian, I was like, “Come on, get out of here. Really?” And I realized the same for me. I’ve never really gone back to read more than like a paragraph or two of any book I’d written. Have you ever gone back and read just chunks of Freakonomics or SuperFreak?

LEVITT: I have. And in my mind, when I think about our books, I imagine them to be my academic papers stapled together, slightly improved. And so, when I actually go and look at our books, every time — and I’ve done it probably five times — I am stunned at how good they are. My reaction is I can’t believe how good this is, how entertaining it is.

DUBNER: Wait, are you blurbing your own books right now? “I’m stunned at how good they are.”

LEVITT: It’s interesting because I think it is a difference between being the writer and in some sense being a bird standing on the shoulder of the writer who’s writing it, which is what I am with our books. It doesn’t really feel like I created it. It feels like an abstraction of some concrete thing that I understand. Now, when I go back and look at my academic papers, I absolutely know what to expect. I’m not surprised at all. But our books, I’m always pleasantly surprised. Obviously, our two lives would look really different if we’d never written Freakonomics. Let’s start with me. What do you think I’d be doing if we’d never met, and Freakonomics didn’t exist?

DUBNER: Oh, you’d probably have a Nobel Prize by now if it weren’t for me. 

LEVITT: Well, I don’t know about that, but for me, the biggest thing that Freakonomics did is that it opened up options outside of academics. And honestly, much to my surprise, a lot of those activities were a lot more fun than academics. So I do think you’re right. Absent Freakonomics, I would’ve written an extra 50 academic papers that almost no one would care about.

DUBNER: But you liked doing that work. And you, for people who don’t know, you collaborated a lot with people outside of economics, which a lot of economists don’t do. So I actually think that your worldview was pretty interesting to start with. But yes, I would’ve seen you staying doing what you were doing. I think you’d still be at the University of Chicago. You would be this beloved, award-winning professor and researcher, and I think you’d be totally satisfied with that, honestly. 

LEVITT: I might be, but I think I also would be one of a large crop of economists who would get my haircut the week before the Nobel Prize in economics is announced every year. And I’d pretend I didn’t care whether I won or not, but secretly, it’d be the only thing I would think about.

DUBNER: All right, so let me ask you this, though. Had you not written Freakonomics, do you think you would’ve won a Nobel Prize by now for the body of academic research you’d done? 

LEVITT: No, I don’t think so.

DUBNER: But why? Because I think what you would say is that, “No, I don’t have a central body of work that changed the way either other economists look at the world or the way the world looks at this piece of life, politics, industry, and so on. I just have a bunch of papers about a bunch of different stuff.” And I would make a strong argument against that.

LEVITT: Well, I think whatever 50 papers I wrote next would almost for sure be worse than the stuff I already did. So if the stuff I did isn’t good enough to get a Nobel Prize, the stuff I was going to do next definitely wasn’t going to be good enough. What I came to realize was that the distinction isn’t winning one or not winning one. It’s whether you crave — whether you have this burning desire to win one. And I think that’s a curse. If you want to be happy in economics, then that’s the thing to avoid. Because look, if you win one, it’s a lot of fun. But it’s the suffering of the masses of economists who crave the Nobel Prize and don’t get it. But forget about me. What do you think you’d be doing?

DUBNER: I think I probably would’ve written a lot more books. Because I love writing books. It’s very hard and often grueling. And there are periods during the process that are absolutely soul crushing. But there’s just this feeling of pride and accomplishment that is unmatched — for me. I really like words on a page. I’ve always loved it. My dad was a writer. He was a journalist. My mom was not, but she was actually a much better writer than my dad. My mom was great with words. And language in our family was just in the air always — playing with language, a lot of songwriting, a lot of goofing on language, a lot of grasping at foreign languages, a lot of wordplay. So to me, I’ve just been in a sandbox really this whole time. And that’s where podcasting may look to the outside world as very different from book writing. It’s actually not that different. There’s an idea, you interview people, you script it. The idiom is different, plainly. But look, there’s no guarantee I would’ve been able to keep writing books for a living, because if your books fail, then after a while, publishers don’t want you to write books anymore.

LEVITT: When Freakonomics was about to come out, weren’t you thinking seriously about taking a job as a magazine editor?

DUBNER: Yeah. The best magazine editor I ever worked with had just taken over a great old title. And we were talking about me joining him there. And if Freakonomics had busted, I probably would’ve done that. And then, I probably would’ve been a little frustrated with being an editor, and then I would’ve started writing some more books. And then, if they had failed, maybe I would’ve been a psychologist if I’d gone back to school for that, maybe a financial planner. But I did think of all these things because like writing as a career choice is idiotic, right? Because of the odds it’s going to work out. So I did think through all this. But when it worked with Freakonomics, it was just like — it wasn’t so much joy, like, “Oh my God, this is great for me.” It was more like relief. I remember I used to hang out with these people who put on Broadway shows, and they were doing a revival of Guys and Dolls. I was at the party, the opening night party when they’re waiting for the New York Times review to come in. But the way it happened 35 years ago was the way it happened like 80 years ago. Like, they’d send some kid over to the Times building to grab a copy. And, if I recall correctly, the critic who’d written the review was also at the party — Frank Rich. So they get the paper. They open it up to the Arts Section and it’s not there. And they’re like, “What the heck is going on?” And I want to say that it was Frank Rich, the critic, said, “Not the front page of the Arts Section. Check the front page of the paper. A1.” It’s like, wait, when does a theater review get on A1? Like never. And this one did. And it was this massive rave review. And then, Jerry Zaks, who was the director, he was just standing there two minutes later. Everybody’s hugging, da, da, da. And I went over to Jerry, and I’m just a kid. I just happened to be there. He knows me a tiny bit. I said, “Mr. Zaks, congratulations. That’s great.” He said, “Thanks.” I said, you know, “What does it feel like?” He said, “Relief.” I said, “You’re kidding me. It’s not like unbelievable joy. It’s not like this’ll show everybody else. It’s just relief?” He said, “Yeah, it’s just relief.” And so, when Freakonomics happened, my biggest priority in life was having a family and raising a family and hopefully trying to live in New York City. And so, I was just so relieved that I would be able to do that, that I didn’t think about all the other good stuff that would come along with it. And so, everything else has sort of been a bonus. My mom used to have this saying — this was partly because we were very poor. But she used to say, “Enough is as good as a feast.” Does that sound like propaganda now that I say it out loud?


DUBNER: There’s also a line from the Talmud, I think. “Who is happy? The person who is happy is someone who is happy with what he has.” So it’s all about not wanting, wanting, wanting. So whether that comes from my family or just from the universe somehow, I’ve got a little bit of that. And I’m grateful for that.  

If Stephen Dubner’s reaction to early success was relief, my first reaction was shock. It never even occurred to me that people would like our book and my next reaction? That was fear because I thought I would hate what success would bring. But happily, it turned out I was wrong about that as well. The last 20 years working with Dubner have been a whole lot of fun and I’m hoping we’ve got 20 good years ahead of us. And now, a question from our listener.

LEVEY: Hi, Steve. So we had a question from our listener June. June wanted to know if there was any academic research that had caught your eye recently. Are there any new papers out that you’re really excited about?

LEVITT: Well, I have to say, it is less and less frequent that I stumble onto an academic paper that gets me really excited. But June’s timing is exquisite because indeed, just a few days ago, I read a paper which I absolutely thought was fantastic. One of those rare papers where when I read it, all I can think is, “God, do I wish I had written this paper.”

LEVEY: Gosh. So who’s it by? And should we have them on PIMA as a guest?

LEVITT: Oh, well, it’s actually by my good friend John List, who we just had on PIMA maybe a month ago. And how cruel of him to release this paper just after we have him on, instead of just before. I would’ve loved to have talked to him in depth about this paper.

LEVEY: So what’s it about?

LEVITT: Well, it’s a paper about crime, which is obviously a subject that I’ve done a lot of research on, and it’s asking a really simple question. One that people have tried to answer before, which is: If a minority driver and a white driver drive exactly the same, is the minority driver more likely to get a speeding ticket than the white driver?

LEVEY: Okay, Steve, that seems like a pretty simple question that’s been answered before, has it not?

LEVITT: Well, it really hasn’t because we’ve never had the right data. In the best-case scenario, you might have data on the number of speeding tickets given to white drivers and the number of speeding tickets given to minority drivers, but that’s not enough information to really answer this question because there are all sorts of variables which make it such that if you only see the number of speeding tickets that are handed out, you still really don’t have that good an idea about whether there’s discrimination on the part of the police or not. Does that make sense to you?

LEVEY: So what you’re saying is that even though we know that minority drivers get more traffic violations than white drivers — you’re saying that there could be more factors besides racism playing a role in that increased number?

LEVITT: Sure. Like, for instance, minority drivers might speed more than white drivers or they might drive in neighborhoods where there’s a greater policing presence. I’m not saying that’s actually true, I’m just saying those are the kinds of variables that past research hasn’t been able to control for. And when it comes to an issue as important as discrimination, people are really hesitant to say it’s discrimination if there are other possible explanations that haven’t been ruled out.

LEVEY: Okay, so what does John’s paper find?

LEVITT: So John, and his seven co-authors take advantage of the fact that they have a dataset, unlike any dataset that’s ever been let loose in the area of crime. And that dataset is the driver information from Lyft. So at the time that John did this study, he was the chief economist at Lyft. And so for their drivers, they have this incredible bounty of information. They know exactly when the drivers are driving. In many cases, they know the race of the driver. They even know the speeds at which the drivers are driving. So what they were able to do is cross reference the Lyft data with a data set from Florida that listed the names and the times and the locations of every speeding ticket that was handed out. And by putting together those two data sets, they can now see exactly how often, even in a given neighborhood, minority drivers and white drivers are speeding and how often they get tickets. And the answer, it turns out, is exactly what you’d think. There is substantial bias on the part of the police. So a minority driver and a white driver who are driving exactly the same, that minority driver is about 25-percent more likely to be given a speeding ticket.

LEVEY: Is that number consistent with other studies that have been done on race?

LEVITT: Well, interestingly, it really does fit right in the middle of the other research that I’ve done in all different aspects of criminal justice. What people have found over and over, never with data of the quality that John has, is that there does appear to be racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. And this magnitude of 25-percent seems about right given what we know. The thing that gets me most excited about the paper isn’t the result, it’s the approach. The possibilities that come when you use rich data in a way that nobody had ever imagined it would be used. And when John came as a guest and I asked him, “Why’d you go work for Lyft?” He said, “I felt like if I wanted to stay on top of the science, I had to have access to these data.” I firmly believe that if economics is going to be important and relevant going forward, it’ll be because researchers get their hands on amazing data. Data that were designed for one purpose and used in a completely different way to try to answer questions we’ve always cared about, but we couldn’t answer until somebody brilliant like John List comes along and tweaks the data in just the right way to allow us to answer those questions.

LEVEY: Thank you, June, for writing. You can find our episode with John List in our archive. If you have a question for us, our email is That’s Steve and I read every email that’s sent and we look forward to reading yours. 

And in two weeks, we’ll be back with a brand-new episode featuring my guest, mathematician Steven Strogatz.

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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Morgan Levey and mixed by Jasmin Klinger. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at, that’s Thanks for listening.

DUBNER: If you were a bird, what kind of bird would you be?

LEVITT: I mean, I’d love to be an owl. I love owls.  

DUBNER: Oh, I do see you as an owl, just staying up all night studying trivia flashcards  

LEVITT: Who, who.  

DUBNER: That was the worst owl who’ing I’ve ever heard. Most people at least try to pretend to sound like an owl. You just said, “Who.”

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  • Stephen Dubner, host of the podcasts Freakonomics Radio and No Stupid Questions; co-author of the Freakonomics books.



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