The Power of the President — and the Thumb (Ep. 68)

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Season 2, Episode 3

We have just released our second series of five one-hour Freakonomics Radio specials to public-radio stations across the country. (Check here to find your local station.) Now these episodes are hitting our podcast stream as well. These shows are what might best be called “mashupdates” — that is, mashups of earlier podcasts which we’ve also updated with new interviews, etc.

This episode is called “The Power of the President — and the Thumb” (download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript here). The first half is an overhaul of our 2010 podcast “How Much Does the President Really Matter?” We’ve mashed it up with our 2011 episode “Where Have All the Hitchhikers Gone?” to create an hour of radio that shows, among other things, how “attribution errors” work.

The episode begins with this simple, heretical question: Does the President of the United States really matter as much as we believe, and on which dimensions? In this new episode, you’ll hear men from both sides of the aisle, Donald Rumsfeld and Austan Goolsbee, agree quite heartily, at least on the topic of the President’s influence on the economy. You’ll also hear Steve Levitt talk about how President Obama let him down. Also: Justin Wolfers and Bernadette Meyler talk about how the President’s actual influence can be measured.

Next up: another supposed truism: hitchhiking is terribly, horribly, ridiculously dangerous. But how true is that truism? It’s true that hitchhiking has declined in America, but why? Was it really as dangerous as we believed? And even if so, what other factors were at play?

You’ll hear a variety of hitchhiking stories, including from Levitt and me. We also talk to baseball-data wizard and crime writer Bill James, who says our risk aversion to hitchhiking makes it more dangerous, and transportation scholar Alan Pisarski, who looks at how hitchhiking can inform future transportation policy. And we wonder: would a society that encourages hitchhiking be, on balance, a better society?


surprised u didn't do the freak analysis re: is hitchhiking more dangerous than walking? (or, drunk walking v drunk hitchhiking)


Interesting podcast. One characteristic of presidents that Dubner doesn't mention, is that of representing the population. If you feel that the president resembles you in some way, you will feel more invested in the nation. It's as if the president embodies the country, thus making you more at home, if you feel he is like you.
This might explain why, when people don't like a president, they ascribe "foreigness" to him. This happened with Lincoln, who was accused of being a Catholic (a religion run by a foreign power), FDR (nicknamed "Rosenfeld", and thought to be in the thrall of the so-called International Jewish Conspiracy), and Obama (called a Muslim and a Kenyan). George HW Bush carefully crafted his son's "Texan" persona despite his NorthEastern roots, and the left accused W of being both inauthentically Texan, and allied with foreign powers (the Saudis - see "Bandar Bush").
Perhaps this "personification" characteristic isn't a "power", and thus doesn't fall under the ambit of this podcast, but it's interesting.



The story on hitchhiking resonated with me, because the practice is actually fairly common where I live. I'm a grad student at a university in a medium-sized city. The university is set apart from the town proper, so it can be a pain to get to and from campus, especially since parking is expensive. There are public buses, which students can ride for free, but they often fill up, and they don't run very frequently at night or on the weekends. Some people bike, but the university is on a huge hill, and you have to be a pretty serious cyclist to make it the whole way. So, it's not unusual to see students trying to get on or off campus by hitchhiking. I don't drive to campus often, but when I do, I often pick people up. And I've been picked up myself a few times, even without sticking my thumb out, by strangers who saw me waiting for a bus on one of the university routes. I suppose it feels safer here because the only people likely to be hitchhiking towards or away from campus are students. Rightly or not, we all assume that other students are non-threatening. That, plus all the incentives against driving solo, seems to create a situation similar to the "slugging" system described in the podcast. Anyway, just thought I'd share my anecdote. Thanks for another fascinating podcast!



You might want to alphabetise the list of stations to maximize listeners.


Just an aside;

I have many a thing to say, as does just about any avid listener/reader/whatever - but the one that induced my first comment, was this one:

The comic affect upon my person of the apologetic preliminitary warning about the "shocking question(!)" at the beginning of the podcast about the president's true level of power -

...Funny to an almost maniacally detached and psychotically objective European mentality like mine (almost entirely, technically). Gave a good laugh! Why is this question shocking????It is one of the few questions that democratically, and perhaps even more so by way of the judiciary give hardcore tabloids a legal lifeline!!!! That means even the least educated and affluent think about this on a regular basis with the utmost sense of entiltlement to such.

You know what else?

You guys are so admirable and smart, so please...confess!

Do you guys not comment about some of the most ostensibly and currently widely-known interviewees of significance ( like d rumsfeld obviously - lower case intentional (omit if desired - i just mean it and I am not an erudite liberal erudite near-totalist when it comes to matters where so many died, and even more were mauled - but his continued subtle making of excuses in your very podcast insult my intelligence, and my semi healthy sense of paranoia/scrutiny - so I will be petty! Apologies, it does not mean I disapprove of your enterprise..) but your podcast with the clearly awkward and and thoroughly but also inadequately prepped(although human and probably not awful by nature) head of Le Pain Quotidien also comes to mind - two different cases where your sharpness glares in it's absence...almost as if you were legally, financially or just socially restricted from commenting about all the glaringly obvious tells in his speech and his patterns - HIS OWN INCENTIVES ARE AT PLAY! HE HAS A LEGACY TO ATTEND TO (he thinks - as if joe blow even remembers him now!!! the sadness of our egos!!the consequences!)....please address it - or ask me to for you and duly assess accordingly. You were were not deep and cutting, you were apologetic towards the interviewees!!!!!! Obviously this is not a bad thing as such and in and of itself, but you have built your rep upon tough and breakneck honesty and shattering of myths, which endears us - hence you have something to live up to, i.e. that which enticed us to you in the first place. You are not Sky News...think about it...

@ Researcher or third party company who might be the first to read this: please think about it and pass it on.

Cheers, Happy Easter and a Kosher Passover.

Am a bit drunk, but still a smart cookie I assure you (as I'm sure they all do). Hence if it is not clear or detailed enough (first of the two circa 99.9999999987% most likely) please ask for more clarification - my point is justified I assure you, more justified than any other I have had on your work specifically...a request for more info in a sober state would flatter and be worth breath's while - just ask and it shall come.


Peter in Brooklyn

Fun with Freakonomics podcasts:

I like the producers of Freakonomics because they represent a sober, rational, scientific, "let's just look at the data, attitude, while at the same time saying amazingly silly stuff (in the sense that they should know better, but are so impressed with their sophisticated data analysis, they no longer feel the need to think). Other people find their heads exploding, they sputter and swear, but Freakonomics has the courage to ask "heretical" questions and look at them rationally.

1. “Levitt doesn’t usually vote for two reasons. One is that, like a lot of economists, he thinks that casting one vote in a sea of millions is basically just a waste of time. Now, it should be said that MOST people don’t think about VOTING like economists do.” There is a thing out there called a “search engine.” The US Census Bureau surveys voter participation. Most people don’t vote. Turnout tends to rise, barely, above 50% for presidential elections. The “data” does not support the assertion. So heretical . . .
2. Dubner takes Wolfers findings that the financial markets changed a small amount during the 2004 election reporting of a Kerry win, and states, “You might think the stock-market effect that Wolfers measured isn’t very meaningful in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, it does seem to show that the people who pay the most attention to the economy -- and who stand most to profit or lose money -- agree that the President isn’t such a big kahuna.” No. The people who stand to profit or lose money agree that Kerry wouldn’t be much worse than Bush. The naïve way Dubner interprets the result is impressive, in a sense. Maybe the financial markets would have reacted differently if someone else was elected. Might that be a possibility? Say Dennis Kucinich was reported elected president, would the financial markets reacted the same way?
3. The episode confuses the fact that Presidents from the Democratic and Republican parties have deviated little from a relatively coherent economic policy, with the conclusion that the executive branch does not matter all that much. It is really a rather bad argument. There is no discussion of the influence the executive branch has over government agencies like the SEC, trade policy, and procurement, by the DoD for example.
4. For what it is worth, I think the conclusion that the President doesn’t matter all that much is correct given the political and economic structure in the United States, but the arguments and facts presented in this episode are just terrible.
5. Finally, it is sad that Freakonomics writes off the amount the President matters for victims of military strikes, drone attacks, missile strikes, assassinations, etc. For many people around the world, the decisions of the President of the United States are a matter of life and death.


Jerry Fairbanks

I have heard Levit say tha the does not vote because it is not important or does not make any difference. This is very disappointing to me and I would like to know why he thinks this is true. You may have published this before but I didn't hear the answer.

Thank you

I absolutely have to know who did that song quoting the Obama "Yes We Can" speech that you played as Levitt was talking about why he doesn't vote. Where can I find it?

David Kyler

Does Clinton regret his aggressive support of GATT and NAFTA as factors in the decline of American manufacturing, unions, wages, economic diversification, and the middle class?


What is the song played at end of this story? Sounded soothing acoustic. (Apologies for repeat. Forgot select notify.)


So many things wrong with the President episode, where to begin? First, the title should have been "How much does the President effect the economy?" because that is all you addressed. The Kerry/stock market study was flawed. You said you studied the stock market reaction between 3 and 7 PM when it was thought Kerry had won. The stock market closes at 4PM and few people react instantly to news and execute a buy or sell decision in a few hours.

The President absolutely matters. A better way to study this is to compare if other candidate have been elected instead of the winner. If Gore had won, there would not have been an Iraq war. What if that trillion dollars had stayed in America? 10,000 soldiers still alive, no amputees or military with PTSD that will have to be treated for years. We would be much farther into a green economy. Now China has surged ahead in the solar panel market. Different Supreme Court Justices would have been chosen - no "Citizens United" decision. The implications of that case are going to be dramatic.
Does anyone think we would be out of Iraq and not into another war (Iran, Libya, Syria) if McCain had been elected?


Bob Laurence

How much power does the president really have? Rather than this long wandering pointless philosophical conversation, why not just ask a veteran of the Iraq war? One with one leg. Or no legs.

As for the decline of hitchhiking -- It's the Interstate Highway System, stupid! It's where you drive if you're going any long distance, and no pedestrians are allowed.


Hitchhiking is alive and well-it has just taken on a new form.

The hitchhiking cast is very interesting from several different perspectives. Based on the pod cast it appears that at somepoint during the 70's and 80's hitchhiking received a "bad-rap" based on a few isolated incidents, and the practice, as we once knew it, has almost become extinct. But hitchhiking has never went away-its just received a new name. Take a look at the Washington DC region. I would argue it has one of the highest "hitchhiking" rates in the U.S; only today we call them "Slugs." Everyday thousands of professionals gather at parking lots dispersed throughout the northeast to catch a ride with other random strangers. It's safe, economical, and beneficial for everyone involved.

Susan in Northern CA

Hitchhiking is not completely gone. I saw a hitchhiker today on my way home from Grass Valley/Nevada City, for example. I didn't pick him up (20 +/- white male), but I do pick up hitchhikers in our local area on the back roads, mostly kids and living-on-the-edge longtime residents.

I also used to hitchhike when in college in CA, Western Europe, and Great Britain in the '60s and early '70s, both alone and with friends. I did encounter a couple of dicey situations, but managed to avoid any major problems.

If I lived in an area with a university or college, I'd pick up hitchhikers more often (and figure I'd see them more often, too). Unlike many, I actually believe the crime statistics and can identify a very small risk when I see one.

Donald Da Duck

you might had not covered some of the power of the presidents that might be of an interest.
1. How come a roommate of a Bush was declared a president of Afghanistan? What is a power there. (I might be mistaking something here a bit considering the names and such.)

2. How come that to cover the Levinski incident, klinton started a war on other side of the globe to cover it up.

3. Obama said that he will stop the wars as a part of his campaign.

From what I gather they can start and end wars.
One might think that war has no huge influence and yet somehow the war expenditure has a tiny bit to do with the economy. My bet is that there are some other things besides wars that were, as a global decisions, influencing the economy.

Just recalled some:

4. klinton wanted and perhaps could had impose a 1C tax on sugar. That may had influenced the economy? Starting that kind of tax could had turned against mass sugar production, subsidies and later on obesity problems? Not to go into the reasons why he did not do such a thing, but it could had been one grand decision overall.

5. Obamacare ? What is the future prospect of that within the next 50 years and so?

To say that they had no influence might be a bit "strange".