Steven LEVITT: Yul Kwon is a fascinating character. And you don’t need to take my word for it, you can hear it for yourself in the first interview I did with Yul, where we talked about winning the TV show Survivor, his lifelong struggle to overcome debilitating anxiety issues, and the practical benefits of knowing game theory. You may want to listen to that first if you haven’t already, or feel free to dive right into part two.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: I brought Yul back for a second conversation because there was still so much more to cover, including his second stint on Survivor and the deeply touching, altruistic reason why he went back on the show. And his experiences running Google’s side of the high-profile Google/Apple contact tracing project. I’m also interested in hearing what’s up next for him, and I’m hoping to convince him that he should run for president.
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Steven LEVITT: Welcome back, Yul. I’m so glad we’re getting the chance to talk again. So as we discussed in our first interview, you’re not someone who repeats himself a lot in life. You’ve cycled through over 15 jobs since law school. And yet you recently decided to go back on Survivor for a second time, for the 40th season. Was it a tough choice to go back?
Yul KWON: Yeah, it was really hard. I, honestly, never thought I was going to go back. I thought the chances were basically zero. First of all, I have three young kids, and I’d also started a new job. But I talked to my wife and she was surprisingly in favor of it.
And at the same time — and this is just a coincidence — one of my close friends from the first time I went on Survivor, his name is Jonathan Penner. He and I became close friends after the show ended, and I became close with his family, including his wife, Stacy, and their two children, Ava and Cooper. He’s a fascinating person, incredibly accomplished. He’s a writer. He’s an actor, producer.
The thing that really drew me to him, though, is he was incredibly devoted to his family. And in 2017, his wife Stacy started exhibiting these weird symptoms where she would start stumbling when she was walking and she’d start slurring her speech. She was ultimately diagnosed as having A.L.S. It’s more commonly known as Lou Gehrig‘s disease; it’s a neurodegenerative disorder that slowly robs you of your ability to control your muscles. It’s a terminal disease. At some point you are going to die.
But the way that it progresses is just a horrifying process and experience. You slowly lose control of your body while at the same time you retain all of your sensation. A year after she’d been diagnosed, she’d lost pretty much all of her motor function; she couldn’t walk. She was on a ventilator and a feeding tube and eventually got to the point where the only part of her body she could still control were her eyes. And that was how she communicated. An electronic device would track her eyes, and she could look at a computer screen and slowly spell out one letter after another.
The other thing that was even more tragic about their situation is that Stacy has a relatively rare form of A.L.S. that’s genetic in nature. So each of her two children, Cooper and Ava, have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the genetic disorder that causes A.L.S.
It was right when all this was happening that I got the invitation to go back on Survivor. And, it occurred to me, maybe I can use this as an opportunity to share Stacy’s story to try to raise awareness and funding for A.L.S. victims. My plan had been: if I did win, I would basically donate the earnings to A.L.S. Research. So after I had that realization, it became an easy decision for me to go back on.
LEVITT: So you did go back on and unfortunately you didn’t win, but C.B.S. really did embrace that vision you had about trying to further A.L.S. research. Can you talk about how that worked?
KWON: They filmed a P.S.A. that aired during one of the episodes where I talked about Stacy and Jonathan to the other competitors. I didn’t win, which was a bummer. But I fortunately made it long enough, I got at least some amount of screen time. I had pledged to match the first $50,000 in donations just to try to get people to start giving. And it seemed like it was the worst possible time to try to fundraise in the midst of this global pandemic when everyone’s freaked out. But amazingly, people actually gave. We ended up raising over $250,000 for A.L.S. research and to support A.L.S. families.
LEVITT: Did it make it worth the exhaustion and the hunger and the obvious physical pain that goes with being on Survivor?
KWON: Yeah, I think so. One thing you always forget is how hard the darn thing is. For 13 years, you look back with rose-tinted glasses, and you just remember all the cool stuff. I will say that the actual experience of going on Survivor was really hard, and it was emotionally just draining, but at least making a small difference towards something that could actually help other people. I think that alone was priceless.
LEVITT: I’m so sorry to say that Stacy Title passed away in January 2021, just a few weeks after we taped this conversation. She was an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and a mother of two. She was 56 years old. Learn more about Stacy and donating to A.L.S. research.
LEVITT: So this isn’t the first time you’ve done something so altruistic. Earlier in your life, you were a frequent organizer of bone marrow donation drives. What’s the story behind that?
KWON: So, my best friend from childhood and I both got into Stanford together. His name was Evan Chen. We were roommates. And then at some point he was diagnosed with leukemia. The doctors determined that unless he had a bone marrow transplant, he wouldn’t survive. And unless you find someone in the family, you basically just have to search the national registry, which is a database of potential donors.
In general, you’re much more likely to find a match if it’s from someone in the same ethnic community. The challenge for people of color especially is that there’s so few minorities who’ve registered to become bone marrow donors that your chance of finding a match are infinitesimal. Asian Americans in particular had such low representation. I think back then they were told that his chances of finding a match were somewhere like one in 15,000.
So when we ran the search and the national registry came up with nothing. I mean, at the time, I basically stopped going to class and I spent all my time trying to organize bone marrow drives. It was just incredibly hard to get any kind of publicity for this. And it’s hard to just get people to care unless you have some sort of platform.
The other thing is, there really aren’t a lot of leaders in the Asian-American community who could really mobilize. We couldn’t find him a perfect match. And he died in my senior year. So ever since then, I’ve been active in trying to encourage more people to become bone marrow donors.
LEVITT: I would love to talk about the economics of this for a minute, because I’ve for a long time been extremely dissatisfied with the idea that when it comes to the donation of organs or bone marrow, why it should be philanthropy.
It seems completely obvious to an economist that we should develop a system in which if you turn out to be a good match for someone on bone marrow, for a stranger, why wouldn’t it be possible for a nonprofit or for the federal government to give you $50,000 or $100,000, which is small in the broader scheme of things of this kind of treatment, in order to entice everyone to become a member of this donor registry. And it would be good for everyone.
KWON: I totally agree. If you allowed people to get some financial incentive for this, then yeah, I think we’d be able to solve this problem in a heartbeat. The good news is that now technology has gotten to the point where you don’t actually have to donate bone marrow per se. You can do stem cell transplants. So getting registered is much easier, and the actual process of donation is much lower, in terms of the cost to the donor itself. But yeah, it’s still super hard.
LEVITT: I mean, that just even reinforces the idea of why we should pay people. It’s something that anybody — say, for $10,000 — I think would be willing to do this. It would more or less solve this entire dilemma in an incredibly cost effective way. I think we’ve got to do it.
KWON: I totally understand how there are risks to this and real potential for abuse. You don’t want to create a market for human organs, things like that. But again, it seems to me that if you do it the right way, the potential benefit to society would grossly outweigh the potential negative externalities here.
LEVITT: I think the only risk of a market is one in which there’s exploitation of people who are poor or don’t have other options. But, the obvious solution to that exploitation is to simply pay a surplus, to pay a bonus, to pay enough money that lots of people want to do it. So when you get your name picked out of the bone marrow library, it’s like you hit the lottery, you’re excited.
KWON: I mean, you can already get paid to donate sperm. So getting paid to do something like donating bone marrow, it seems to me not too dissimilar.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and part 2 of his conversation with lawyer, entrepreneur, political organizer, government regulator, organ donor activist, and winner of Survivor Yul Kwon. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about Kwon’s work on a Covid-related project with Google and Apple.
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LEVITT: I’m really curious now to find out more about Yul’s recent experience leading Google’s contact tracing efforts. And I also want to bounce one of my own ideas for stopping Covid off of him. I love the idea, but for some reason, just about everybody else thinks it’s really dumb.
LEVITT: For most of the past year, you’ve been working on a Covid-related project that’s a partnership between Google and Apple. So I’m guessing that Apple and Google are not generally on friendly terms, but somehow they got together to work on this. Could you explain how that came to happen?
KWON: Yeah, Google and Apple have historically been arch competitors, and the idea of the two companies actually partnered together is something that probably would not have happened in normal times. That said, we’re not living in normal times. I’ve been working on this project called Exposure Notifications. It’s a partnership between Google and Apple to build technology to help fight Covid-19 by augmenting traditional contact tracing techniques.
So Covid-19 happens, and the world is in disarray and everyone’s going into lockdown. And a lot of different governments and public health authorities around the world have been looking for ways to help combat Covid-19 using technology. We’ve basically realized, look, if all these governments are going to have a chance at building a contact tracing solution that is going to work, we would actually have to get involved. And we’d have to work together.
Because you don’t want someone who has an iPhone not to be able to detect someone who has an Android device. Everyone carries phones with them. So if you can use that to know where people are, and where they’ve been, and potentially who they’ve been in proximity with, then you can use that information when there’s an outbreak of Covid-19 to try to tell all those people to self-quarantine and get tested.
The basic idea here was that contact tracing is a technique that’s been used by public health and epidemiologists for years to try to control the spread of infection. What it usually entails is: when someone’s been infected with something, a human contact tracer will interview the person to find out who they’ve been in proximity to for the last, I don’t know, say, two weeks. And then in turn, that human contact tracer will reach out to all those contacts to find out if that person should then also get tested to self quarantine, and if that person themselves may have been exposed to other people as well.
The problem with contact tracing is that it’s very effective when it works, but it has challenges in terms of scale. You need a lot of human contact tracers to fight a global pandemic. It’s also slow. Time is not a luxury that you have during a pandemic where the spread of infection is incredibly fast.
The last problem with contact tracing, the traditional technique, is that even if someone has a perfect memory, say they remember all the people they’ve been with, they’re still not going to be able to identify people that they don’t actually know. So if you’re sitting next to a stranger on a bus, for example, or sitting next to someone in a cafe, you probably won’t be able to identify that person to the human contact tracer.
So what we did was we and Apple built an A.P.I. It’s a piece of technology that allows other developers to build an app to enable this background Bluetooth scanning that does it in a very privacy-safe way. We released this back in May and have had pretty strong adoption across the globe. We’ve had about 50 countries and regions that have deployed contact tracing apps or technology.
LEVITT: How big were the teams working on this problem, and how many months did you devote to the solution?
KWON: It felt more like a startup than anything else I’ve seen during my time working at Google. At various times, we probably had dozens of people involved, definitely a decently large set of core engineers, but then lots of other cross-functional partners that got involved. I mean, it was basically something we cobbled together. So all told, across both companies, I’m sure hundreds of people were involved in this effort. And between the time that we announced and the time we actually launched the first version of the A.P.I., was probably just around six weeks or so, which is incredibly fast.
LEVITT: It seems like this is a situation that’s ripe for behavioral economists to get involved and help you with adoption issues.
KWON: Well, I remember giving you a call and saying, “Hey, do you have any bright ideas?” So the broad point I think you’re raising in terms of the level of adoption is success, there’s been quite a range that we’ve seen across the globe. A number of countries have had very high levels of adoption, others have not.
When we first started the project working with Apple, we very quickly realized that the only way this was probably going to be palatable for large swaths of the population was to really anchor towards privacy. To really make this something that’s not going to be seen as a tool of surveillance by different governments or something that, even if it got hacked, could reveal people’s personal information or sensitive information.
LEVITT: I know this isn’t how politics work, but the economics of contact tracing are such that if it really worked well and had near 100 percent adoption, we probably could squash this pandemic really quickly. And if you put a dollar value on that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the dollar value of each sign-up was something in the thousands of dollars.
It would be interesting to live in a world in which economics ruled and we could offer people a few thousand dollars per sign up to activate this app. And my guess is in a world where you got paid a couple of thousand dollars to activate the app, people would do it and we would really get to an answer. But instead, we live in lockdown and the government runs a $6 billion a day deficit. That’s the reality of when economics and politics clash, economics almost always loses.
KWON: Steve, I’ve often wondered what the world would be like if you were the one who was a philosopher king and in charge of policy. I think it would be fascinating.
LEVITT: The other policy that I put forth on Covid, that basically everybody thought was stupid, is if you take a place like California and if you could have Governor Newsom say: “Hey, we’re in the middle of a terrible pandemic right now, but here’s the deal. If on March 1st, our Covid rates are, say, 1/50th of what they are today, then the Governor of California will pay every single adult in California $1,000. And if we don’t make it, then nobody gets paid anything.”
The reason I like this approach is that it really uses social pressure. The most powerful tool we have, even above the law, is social pressure. If everybody got mad because your bad behavior let me not get paid my $1,000 in March, I think we’d have a police force that was the entire population of the state of California. But when I pitched this, I literally did not get a single positive response from a single person I pitched it to. So it must be the worst idea on record.
KWON: That’s a fascinating idea. Maybe if you broke it down, because at a state level, I don’t know if the sense of social obligation holds as strongly as if you were to make this available to specific communities. But I like the idea. I think it’s —
Relating this back to Survivor. So Survivor is cool because it’s basically this grand social experiment that has, for the most part, fairly infinite resources to do whatever you want. The problem with most economic studies is that they don’t have the resources to set up these grand experiments where people are being observed 24 hours a day.
I think you should start a reality show, Steve. I think you start a reality show where you can test out all your different economic theories and ideas and see how people actually behave, because I think that would be a fascinating experiment to see which of these ideas actually work in real life.
LEVITT: So I did try to pitch a reality show. I went around to all the networks. It was called Cops and Robbers. The idea was that it would be a lot like Big Brother, but you’d be in teams of two, and each team would have one police officer and one murderer on the team. What I wanted to do was to show how, really, maybe the differences between the cops and the robbers in the end weren’t that big.
I wanted to, along the way, have all sorts of opportunities for law-breaking. So maybe there’d be a big display of awesome food, shrimp cocktail and things. And the sign on it would say, “Crew members only, not for cast members,” and there’d be a hidden camera. And you could see how many of the police officers were taking the shrimp cocktail versus the criminals.
And I did get to pitch every network. I got so far as to one network almost talked about doing it. But after they talked to their legal team, they said, “No, it can’t be murderers or robbers. It can only be minor white collar criminals.” And by the time you get there, you’ve totally lost all of the oomph. In the end, they never did run the show. But I still stand at the ready. If there’s a network that wants to do Cops and Robbers, I’m ready to roll.
Do you think about running for office? What about Yul Kwon for President?
KWON: Yeah, no. That would never happen.
LEVITT: But why not? Why not? Don’t you think it could work?
KWON: I generally think that the barriers to going into political office, the personal sacrifices you have to make, are so extreme that it rules out most people who have what you would consider to be normal or good values. I mean, there are probably a number of public servants who generally do it for the right reasons because they really care about making a difference. But I’m pretty sure that that’s not a massive proportion of people who run for office. I think a lot of people are often motivated by different things.
In my case, I thought at one point maybe running earlier in my career, just because I think I’m an idealist at heart. But once I realized what it would actually entail, like spending so much time away from my family, constantly asking people for money, going to all these events, I realized it would not be the kind of life that I would want for myself and my family. I think that’s the thing. I think this is true for a lot of people. The hurdles to running for public office are such that most people who actually would be the best people to become leaders would never do it. I think that’s a challenge.
LEVITT: But you have shown a tolerance for physical discomfort, sacrifice. Maybe it’s time to rethink that. Maybe as painful as it would be for you, you could bite the bullet and make the world a better place that way.
KWON: I’m, obviously, a strong believer in democracy. I feel like it has been so far the most positive form of government. But, I do have this concern that there’s a self-selection bias in terms of people who actually run for office.
One thought I’ve had, I mean, this would never happen — but you know the ideal form of government in many respects might be an enlightened monarchy where you have a truly beneficent and thoughtful and competent monarch who’s basically able to make the right decisions. It may not even be the case that the monarch actually makes every decision. That might actually be a bad thing.
But you could try to institute a relatively stable and safe form of government that is representative. But the monarch itself can act as an absolute check in terms of things going potentially awry. The problem with having an absolute monarchy is that it’s inherently unsustainable. You just need to get one bad actor in there, and then the whole thing falls apart, and then it just self-perpetuates in a negative way.
So I’ve wondered, is there some way that you could institute a process by which you over time identify high prospect, high potential leaders who had the right set of values, and you artificially put them through different scenarios — similar to what you’re talking about with Cops and Robbers — where they would essentially reveal how they would act in the absence of what they understand to be observable events?
It would be extremely hard to do, but it would require massive investment of resources to do something like this at scale. But I actually think it may be okay. This is such an important question, that if you were to allocate even one percent of G.D.P. — or maybe even five percent of G.D.P. — towards a system and program by which you’re able to identify the most honest, the most thoughtful, the most competent potential leaders, and use that as a process by which you actually pick the leaders. I wonder if that would even be feasible.
LEVITT: I love the idea. The difficulty, of course, is who gets to decide what the test is that says you’re honest and thoughtful and reasonable, but—
KWON: It wouldn’t be one test; it would be a lifelong series of things.
LEVITT: It’s maybe not the exact same criteria, but it is the dimension on which people come to be C.E.O.s or four-star generals. They’re part of something for a lifetime. And the sum of all they do is then judged. But the old Confucian angle on the Chinese Civil Service where what they really tried to do was to find the most talented people in the country to come and work in government as opposed to our rules now, which is we’ve made the experience so incredibly painful that for any normal person, they wouldn’t think about elected office. We drive away all the talent.
KWON: If you think about it, a lot of reality shows really are predicated on these really interesting interpersonal or social dynamics. I wonder if you were able to reproduce this at scale to try to identify emerging leaders by artificially producing circumstances in which you ultimately reveal their true character, again, it would be something that require planning across all different sectors of society, like from like school teachers in school, all the way to employers, all that kind of stuff.
But if you were to treat this as probably the single most important decision that a society can make in any given generation. And you would allocate a significant portion of G.D.P. to actually instituting a program that would actually work at scale, then I wonder what would happen.
LEVITT: You’re really talking about almost a lifetime academy in which we would take the most talented people and have them prove their skill and their honesty and their worth over a lifetime with — maybe the closest thing we have to that, again, is something like the Pope. I mean, the Pope is in many ways chosen with that kind of mechanism.
KWON: I think the key would have to be, again, people not knowing that they’re being observed. I think one of the challenges with things where you have a formal program, people would be on their best behavior. And the point is to try to find out how would they behave in the absence of them being aware that they’re being observed.
LEVITT: I was just thinking if someone observes you for your entire life, then it’s harder to fake it than if you do it for a day, a week, or a month. But now you’re definitely moving into science fiction territory when you imagine a world in which we take the most talented people and we observe them without them knowing they’re being observed. That sounds like a good movie, if nothing else.
KWON: I think so. It could be an interesting movie. It could be an interesting game. Could be an interesting reality show. I mean, I would almost think that the penultimate step, the last test you have to pass in order to become like the new designated leader, would be some sort of test where the person knows it’s down to them and one other person.
And they have, again, an artificially designed situation where they believe they could end up sabotaging the other person very easily and it wouldn’t even have to be a proactive effort on their part. They would have to just benignly not do something in order for this other person to be ruled out of consideration for something they didn’t actually do. And this person would have to believe that without the sabotage, the other person would end up becoming the leader.
LEVITT: A person who could take this step, the gracious step, to let the other person win after having dedicated their lives to achieve a goal is exactly the kind of person we want running our country.
KWON: Right. Exactly. Exactly.
LEVITT: If I understood him, I think Yul was suggesting that we choose the President of the United States via a reality TV show. I can’t say I think that sounds like a great idea. I do believe, however, that we as a society need to put some serious thought into how we make working for the government more attractive. I don’t have easy answers to that question, but I do have one personal story that’s relevant.
When President Obama was first elected, I was thinking hard about taking a job in his administration until I took a look at the form that’s part of the vetting process. There were 63 questions and they were both invasive and ridiculously onerous. One question asked me to provide copies of every email I had written in the previous 10 years that might reflect negatively on the administration if made public.
Well, I write at least 100 emails a day — that adds up to 365,000 emails over 10 years, and I’m sure plenty of those would be embarrassing if they were made public. The form also demanded that I provide a written transcript of every speech I had made in the last 10 years, at that time I was giving roughly 30 speeches a year. And every speech I give is spontaneous, never from written notes. I could never comply with this request, but to even begin to give it a shot would have taken weeks of my time.
And what about the house cleaners and nannies for whom I hadn’t paid Social Security taxes? Probably that in and of itself disqualified me. How about a poorly thought-up blog post in which I’d given advice to terrorists? Would that or any number of controversial academic papers lead to a showdown during which the Senate confirmation committee would do everything it could to humiliate and discredit me?
In the end, I only made it through about five of the 63 questions before I gave up. It really hit me: filling out this form was just the beginning. If you take a high-profile Washington job, every step and misstep is subject to scrutiny. It just wasn’t worth it. I like my quiet life.
I’m not saying I would necessarily make a great public servant, but if I was deterred by the process, then there must be many others who were likewise deterred. And I suspect that those are exactly the kind of people we want working for us in Washington. I don’t know what the answer is, but if we want talented people in Washington, we somehow have to change the process.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, and is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Morgan Levey is our producer and Dan Dzula is the engineer. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Mark McClusky, Greg Rippin, and Emma Tyrrell. All of the music you heard on this show was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at email@example.com. That’s P-I-M-A at Freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
LEVITT: All right, Yul Kwon for President. And I’m going to have a secret closet off of the Oval Office where I get to listen in on the conversations and every once in a while offer my advice.
KWON: Well, it’s great to know that I could potentially count on your vote.
Yul used his second stint on Survivor to raise awareness and fundraise for A.L.S. research after a close friend was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease. If you’re interested in supporting the cause, you can learn more here.