An all-star team of behavioral scientists discovers that humans are stubborn (and lazy, and sometimes dumber than dogs). We also hear about binge drinking, humblebragging, and regrets. Recorded live in Philadelphia with guests including Richard Thaler, Angela Duckworth, Katy Milkman, and Tom Gilovich.
For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
* * *
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen. Please welcome the host of Freakonomics Radio, Stephen Dubner.
Stephen J. DUBNER: Thank you so much. This is a very special episode of Freakonomics Radio. It’s about one of my favorite topics. And based on the feedback we’ve gotten, it’s one of your favorites too. It’s about behavior change. So a couple years ago we first interviewed two researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Angela Duckworth and Katy Milkman. They had launched an audacious new project called Behavior Change for Good, gathering together a dream team of behavioral scientists from all over the world. It’s their attempt to advance the science of behavior change and help more people make good decisions about personal finance, health, and education.
Tonight we are recording live at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia, just down the street from the University of Pennsylvania. We’ll be hearing brief presentations from four behavioral-science researchers about their latest work. Later on we’ll hear from a Nobel laureate who helped create this field. But let’s start at the beginning by getting caught up on the Behavior Change for Good project with its founders. Would you please join me in welcoming Angela Duckworth and Katy Milkman. Angela, Katy, so nice to have you here.
Angela DUCKWORTH: Hi.
Katy MILKMAN: Hi.
DUBNER: So it’s been a few years now since you started this project. At the time, Katy, here’s what you told us: “We both thought the biggest problem in the world that needed solving was figuring out how to make behavior change stick.” So my first question is: have you solved that problem yet?
MILKMAN: Well, we learned a ton in the last three years but we have not solved this problem. Today we had a really fabulous gathering, where we shared the results of some of our first ambitious studies to try to make a major dent in this. And I would say the hashtag from the day was “Science is hard.” We ran a massive randomized controlled trial, so big old experiment. Sixty-three thousand members of 24-Hour Fitness gyms, which is one of the biggest gym chains in the U.S., signed up to be part of a really cool behavior-change program that we offered them for free. And it was designed by a team of brilliant scientists who we had brought together.
DUBNER: Now just to be clear: you’re recruiting people who’ve already gone to the trouble, and the commitment, of joining a gym, yes?
MILKMAN: Exactly. So you’re a member of 24-Hour Fitness and you hear all these cool scientists built a program and that I can sign up for free, it’ll help me exercise more.
DUBNER: And what exactly are you trying to get them to do?
MILKMAN: We tell them it’s a 28-day program, and the goal is to get you to build a lasting exercise habit, ideally forever. That was our goal. Let’s make all these habits stick.
DUBNER: So the idea is you get people to sign up, you give them encouragement and incentives? Or there’s some cash rewards or—?
MILKMAN: Yes. There was cash promised and delivered. So we were paying, order of magnitude, like a quarter for every gym visit. Better than nothing, but not a lot.
DUBNER: Not really, but ok.
MILKMAN: And we also said we’ll give you different kinds of messaging and reinforcement.
DUBNER: Okay. So how amazingly, beautifully, perfectly well did it work?
MILKMAN: So you want the good news or the bad news first?
DUBNER: Let’s start with an overview. Would you call it a failure or an abysmal failure?
MILKMAN: I’m going failure rather than abysmal failure. We learned a lot. The good news is 52 out of the 53 things that we tested we thought would improve gym attendance. One of our 53 experimental programs was supposed to be nothing. People signed up, we’re like, “Thanks for signing up. Good luck with your life.” That was sort of our comparison set. The other 52, everybody in those 52 conditions went to the gym more.
DUBNER: That sounds nothing like a failure to me.
MILKMAN: Okay. Here comes the failure. So we were actually trying to test new scientific insights, and all of the programs that we built on top of a baseline thing that we thought would work. Which was reminding people to go to the gym, paying them a little bit to go to the gym, and having them make a plan for the dates and times when they wanted to go. Then the reminders come at those times.
We were hoping to improve upon the performance of that. And nothing did. So basically what we found is that a set of ingredients we were already quite confident would work, they did. And then when we layered new stuff on, that we thought, “This is a sexy, new idea, it’s going to beat the best practice,” we got nowhere.
DUBNER: Okay, I seem to recall that part of this project was asking all your fellow researchers when they design experiments to make a prediction of how well their experiment would work. And these are some of the best and brightest minds in behavioral sciences, so presumably their predictions are not terrible. Were they terrible?
DUCKWORTH: So what we learn was that our scientists are quite optimistic about behavior change, and on average they thought “Oh, about 40 percent likelihood that my experiment worked.” Whereas when the data come in, it’s — it’s close to zero.
DUBNER: It strikes me, knowing nothing about anything, that what you were trying to do as your first big project — getting people to go to the gym more on a lasting basis — is the opposite of low-hanging fruit.
MILKMAN: Oh, that’s interesting. Okay. I do think it’s worth mentioning again, we actually didn’t fail at getting people to go to the gym. During the 28-day program, most of the different versions of the program did create behavior change — so, 50 to 75 percent created significant boosts in exercise for 28 days. It’s just that we didn’t do very well creating lasting change.
So after our 28-day program, pretty much we saw nothing in terms of behavior change. All 53 versions of the program, pretty much nothing sticks. And that was the ultimate goal. So that was a major failure.
DUBNER: So I know both of you fairly well by now and I know that neither of you are short on enthusiasm. So I don’t see you packing up and quitting, and disbanding the Behavior Change for Good project. What are your next steps?
MILKMAN: Okay, a couple of things. First of all, we’re doing more with this gym data. We’re going to swing a bat at it instead of the feather approach next time. We’re also going to do medication-adherence work. We think we can make a dent there given some of the science that’s preceded us. We’re going to do some work on childhood obesity in the U.K., which we’re really excited about.
DUBNER: Here’s something that you, Angela, said when this project was starting. “The one problem that really confronts humanity in the 21st century is humanity itself.” Being that we do a lot of things that are not so good for us. Nutrition, smoking, not saving enough for retirement, etc.
After that episode, one listener wrote in to say this, “This was the most depressing episode ever. People are a mess. That’s what makes humanity beautiful. Taking away our spontaneity, our whimsy, our impulses, and replacing them with only logical thinking is truly a dastardly idea. Some of the greatest things mankind has ever done weren’t for our overall well-being. They were done just because they were fun. You are killing the fun.”
I don’t have a question. I just wanted to read that into the record. No, I do have a question. So for the sake of argument, what makes you think that behavioral scientists like yourselves should be nudging or even shoving people to change their behavior when they might like their behavior just fine?
DUCKWORTH: If you think of the most self-controlled person you know, you might think, “Wow they have no fun. They never go out to, say, Freakonomics Radio Live. They only drink water. They work all day and they have no play. And that’s no way to live. But in fact there is research on the extremes of self-control, and there is no data that show that really self-controlled people are any less happy.
Self-control is the ability to align your behavior with what you want. If what you want is a life of spontaneity and ice cream cones, then that’s the behavior that you have to align to. That’s the goal. But the kinds of problems that Behavior Change for Good is working on — exercise; for teenagers, studying; for those people who have had a heart attack, taking your medications. These are things that most people actually value as goals and they simply interfere with other things that we could do — not taking our medication, hanging out on Snapchat all day, not going to the gym and binge-watching Game of Thrones instead at home on the couch. These are all temptations that are just more pleasing in the moment, but we later regret. So you can write back to this cranky listener, they’re misunderstanding what it really means to actually have a lot of self-control.
DUBNER: Well, I will say this: despite your struggles so far, I know that you two are super-gritty people and that you’re going to keep at it. And I really look forward to hearing the results down the road. So can we say thank you so much to Angela Duckworth and Katy Milkman. Now it’s time to hear from four members of the dream team of behavioral scientists that Katy and Angela have assembled for Behavior Change for Good; they’re all doing work that somehow relates to decision-making or cognition or human fallibility. First up is a Ph.D. psychologist who teaches at the Harvard Business School. Would you please welcome Mike Norton. So, Mike I understand you’ve been doing research on how people split the check when they go out for dinner and what that may say about our behaviors. Can you tell us about that please?
Mike NORTON: Can I ask you? So, out with a bunch of friends, drinks, and appetizers, salads, meal, dessert, check comes. What do you do? Do you say, “Let’s just split it and all put in our credit cards?” Or are you the guy who takes the check and calculates everything and says, “Well, I only had six croutons so let me — I’m just going to pay this much”?
DUBNER: You are asking me what I do?
NORTON: I am.
NORTON: If you’re comfortable admitting it.
DUBNER: Sure, yes. So, I am definitely not a counter, so I wouldn’t do that. But I will say this. If I’m going to a dinner where I think it’s a split dinner, where we’re all contributing, I will not skimp. Let me put it that way. Because I figure if I’m getting an eighth of it, I want my steak and I want my ice cream sundae. I’m actually getting it at a little bit of a discount because I figure some other people aren’t. So I’m getting 20 percent off the steak. So what does that make me?
NORTON: It feels like it’s working for you, but if we asked your friends and family they might— So we actually find that there’s sort of two kinds of people. A lot of people either say “When the check comes, maybe you had more, maybe I had more, let’s just split it.” And then there’s another group of people. It’s typically 30 percent of people actually, who no matter what— I mean it could be a $3.08 meal, and they’ll still take the check and figure out who had what and make sure that they split it exactly.
DUBNER: Okay. So I want to know about this research — how you do it and who the people are.
NORTON: So we can do really, really simple experiments where we can say, “Look at this person’s Venmo account and see the payments they made.”
DUBNER: And Venmo is a payment app, we should say, correct?
NORTON: A payment app. And what it does, which is brilliant, is it automatically splits things for you. So it’s great. It means if we go out for dinner, and it’s 20 dollars and two cents, it actually will make each of us pay ten dollars and one cent. And we can just show you, for example, one person made a payment of $10.01 to some friend, and another person made a payment of $9.99 to another friend.
And then, in the other version, you see someone who paid ten dollars to one friend and ten dollars to another friend. If I did that right they both added up to $20. So it’s not a different amount of money. So, everything’s the same. Your friend paid you back. It’s $20. And we said, “Who do you like? How do you feel about this person?” And—
DUBNER: Sorry, how do you, a disinterested observer—
NORTON: Here’s two people you don’t even know them, it’s not even a friend of yours, it’s just these two people. How do you feel about them? The $10/$10 person they say “Yeah, it seems like a nice guy.” And the $10.01 person and the $9.99 person they say, “I don’t like them.”
DUBNER: Either or one of them?
NORTON: Yeah, yeah. Don’t like them.
DUBNER: Is there more dislike for the one that does the $9.99 or no?
NORTON: Only slightly. So actually, one thing that we tried to compare to is generosity. So think, who do you like better? Someone who pays you back $10 or someone who pays you back $10.03? So technically the $10.03 person is more generous. But they’re also really weird about money and really petty. And in fact that’s how much we dislike this behavior, is we like the person more who paid us less. As long as they weren’t petty about it.
DUBNER: Also pennies are a pain in the neck. Let’s be honest.
NORTON: I’ve never seen them, I don’t know.
DUBNER: Okay. So what have you identified in the wild? Is it pettiness? Is that what you’re studying?
NORTON: Yeah, so pettiness is attention to trivial details. That’s the way to think about it. So it can happen with time, it can happen with all sorts of currencies where there’s these people in our lives who really seem very interested in the little, tiny minutiae of life and they tend to drive us crazy. And again they’re not wrong. They’re doing the math correctly. There’s no problem with it on one level, but for many of us they really, really drive us crazy.
DUBNER: Do you know anything about how pettiness works in let’s say a romantic relationship?
NORTON: Personally you mean? Or just from the research?
DUBNER: I didn’t mean to imply it, but I see that I did. So —
NORTON: So we ask people in relationships about their partner, to rate them on all kinds of things. How generous are they, all sorts of things. And also how petty are they. By asking them “Is your partner the kind of person who splits things randomly or do they really care about dollars and cents?” The answers to that question really predict not only dissatisfaction in your relationship, but we asked, “How upset would you be if your relationship ended?” And people who are with a petty partner are less upset when they think about their relationship ending.
DUBNER: I see that you’ve written about what you call two different kinds of relationships: “exchange” relationships and “communal” relationships. Is that the idea?
NORTON: Exactly. So, classic exchange relationship is with our bank. So we’re not offended at all if our bank gets things down to the cent. In fact we’re really upset if they don’t. Because the whole point of a bank is they’re supposed to be really good at dollars and cents. If your bank said, “We’ll just round it up.” “What are you talking about, it’s my money!” So you’re not supposed to do it over there. And in fact that’s why we get so upset in communal relationships, because our friends are treating us like a bank. They’re treating us like we’re a merchant and we owe them money.
DUBNER: All right. So let’s say I find this pettiness effect interesting, and I do. Though perhaps not all that surprising. Beyond the handful of people involved in one of these dollars-and-cents transactions, what are the larger ramifications here?
NORTON: What technology does— actually it’s more efficient, it’s better, it’s an improvement, but it actually is starting to default all of us into the dollars-and-cents world. And there’s nothing, again, wrong with that, but it does mean that it can be eroding social capital. It’s actually good if I take you out for lunch and treat you because then later you might take me out for lunch and treat me. And now we have an ongoing relationship.
DUBNER: I understand, Mike, that you’ve also done research on humblebragging. Is that true?
DUBNER: I mean you may not want to admit it but — can you tell us in a nutshell what a humblebrag is and when it’s good and when it’s bad?
NORTON: Katy and Angela tend to study things that are making the world a better place. And I tend to study things that I find annoying. And in that way I’m changing the world as well.
There’s two kinds, actually. There’s complaintbragging and then there’s humblebragging. So complaintbragging, whenever someone online says, “Ugh,” right after that it’s going to be a complaintbrag. Just wait for it. It’s always a complaintbrag. So they say, “Ugh, wearing sweatpants and everyone’s still hitting on me.” One of my favorite ones ever was, “My hand is so sore from signing so many autographs.”
So humblebragging, usually people recycle from Wayne’s World for some reason, “Not worthy.” So that’s — and whenever you see that, that means that here comes a humblebrag. “Not worthy,” and then say, “So honored to be onstage with Katy Milkman and Angela Duckworth.” So what I’m really just doing is saying, “I’m onstage with really important people, but I’m acting all humble about it.”
The reason that people do these things, we can show in the research, is they’re feeling insecure. So I want to brag, always, because I want everyone to think I’m awesome. But I have the theory that if I brag, people won’t like me, because nobody likes a braggart. So we think what we can do is if we’re humble about it, then people will say, “Oh, what a nice guy. And also I learned that he knows celebrities.” And instead what people think is, “What a jerk.” So in fact we like braggarts, just straight-up braggarts, which is just saying, “I met a famous person.” We like them more than people who do this little strategy where they try to humblebrag.
DUBNER: Interesting. Mike Norton, thank you so much for joining us tonight. Would you please welcome our next guest, she is a professor of psychology and head of Silliman College at Yale. She recently designed and taught the most popular course in Yale’s history, called “Psychology and the Good Life.” Would you please welcome Laurie Santos. I understand that you — rather than wasting time working with humans, as all these other people have been doing — you’ve been doing behavioral research with, and this makes my heart pitter-patter so hard, dogs. Yes?
Laurie SANTOS: That’s right. They’re just more fun than people.
DUBNER: So, I know you used to do, or maybe still do, some research with capuchin monkeys as well. Which makes me curious why, as a psychologist, you find it so compelling to work with animals.
SANTOS: Yeah, it’s a niche field, the whole dog-cognition, monkey-cognition thing. But I’m actually very interested in human behavior. Which is why I got interested in animals. Humans are so weird. There’s no other species that has a live radio show talking about their own species’ behavior, using technology like this, and human language. And on the one hand that’s sort of goofy, but on the other hand it raises this deep question, which is, what is it that makes us so special?
DUBNER: And when you ask 20 scientists, let’s say, from across a broad range of scientists, you’ll get 20 answers of what makes humans unique, yes? What do you believe is the thing?
SANTOS: Yeah, I mean the top 10 are things like language, things like the fact that we can perspective-take, the fact that we can think about the future. We took a different take, though, which is all those answers tend to be stuff that makes us so smart — we’re special because we’re so smart. I actually worry a deeper thing might be that we have to worry not about the smart stuff, but we have to worry about some of the dumb stuff. We might be uniquely dumb in certain ways, or uniquely biased in certain ways. And we have to understand that if we really want to understand how human cognition works.
DUBNER: Is it possible that we are “wrong” so often as humans because we are so smart though? Because we think too much, think our way out of an obvious solution?
SANTOS: Yeah, that’s one possibility, is that some of the smart capacities we have might not be giving us the best answers all of the time. Take our future thinking, right? We get to think about all these other hypotheses and all these counterfactuals. And that gets us out of the present moment. That means we’re thinking about different kinds of things than we would be if we were just a monkey that was just taking it all in, in the moment. It’s sometimes our smarter capacities that end up making us look incredibly dumb.
DUBNER: Okay, so I want you to start by telling us how you do the dog experiments.
SANTOS: Yeah. We started with dogs in part because we built them to be like us. We, over this process of domestication, took a wolf, this wild canid, and said let me take a creature that can hang out with me, and therefore has cognitive abilities that can get along in human culture. And that means that we have a creature that’s ready to soak up our culture in lots of different ways. So if there’s anybody that’s going to be like us, any species that is likely to show our biases, dogs might really be one of those. That’s why we focus on them.
DUBNER: Are they test dogs? Are they regular dogs that you recruit?
SANTOS: Just like human subjects, we recruit them in the same way. So we put posters up and we say, “Do you want to bring your dog in for a study?”
DUBNER: What are you trying to get the dogs to think or do? And how does that compare to humans?
SANTOS: In one study we focused on a particular phenomenon that researchers call “overimitation,” which as you might guess is imitating too much. Here’s the phenomenon in humans. Imagine I show you some crazy puzzle box, you don’t know how it works. And I say, “I’m going to explain to you how it works.” I’m going to tap this thing on the top. I’m going to do all these steps and I open the puzzle box and I give it to you. If it was some hard-to-figure-out puzzle box, you might just copy me.
But imagine I give you a really easy puzzle box, just a completely transparent box. Nothing on it. It just had a door that you could open to get food out. But you watch me do all these crazy steps, I tap on the side, I spin it around a few times, I do all these things. You might hope that humans are smart enough to say, “That was a really dumb way to open the box. Give it to me, I’m going to open the door.”
But it turns out that’s not what humans do. Humans will follow slavishly all these dumb steps that they see someone else do, just in case. And we thought the same dumb copying behaviors that we see humans do, we should probably see in dogs as well.
Here’s how we set it up. We made a dog-friendly puzzle box, easy enough for the dogs to understand. So it was a transparent box with a lid that was really obvious, and if you flip the lid up you could get inside and get a piece of food. But we added this extraneous lever on the side of the box, and we showed dogs, “Hey here’s how you open it.” You have to move the lever back and forth, it takes a really long time, lever, lever, lever, lever, and then at that point you can open the box.
Now in theory if we did this with a human they would say, “I don’t really understand.” Then lever, lever, lever, lever, lever, lever, open the box. That’s actually what humans four-year-olds do, there’s some wonderful videos online where you can see this. And what do the dogs do? Ran over, lifted the lid, and got the food. What this is telling us is that we’ve created this species that learns from us a ton. They follow our cues all the time. But they’re actually smarter at learning from us than we are at learning from ourselves.
DUBNER: You mentioned a four-year-old human. Are you comparing the dogs to children or to adult humans?
SANTOS: Yeah, so this study we did was in direct comparison with a study that Frank Keil and Derek Lyons did at Yale University. They did this with four-year-old kids. And what they find is that four-year-old kids will slavishly imitate what they see even when you make the box so simple that a four-year-old could figure it out.
DUBNER: So you’re not saying that dogs are “smarter than humans.” You’re saying dogs are “smarter than four-year old humans.”
SANTOS: The cutest version of the study, is a four-year old study. But you can make the box slightly more complicated and find that adult humans overimitate just as much. And if you don’t believe me, have one of your pieces of technology on your TV go out and have someone come in and be like “Well, you’ve got to move this wire to the HDMI thing and whatever.” And you will have no causal understanding of it, but my guess is you will copy exactly what that person does.
DUBNER: How would you then characterize: dogs are more ____ than humans in this regard? Is it more rational? Is it less susceptible to bad advice?
SANTOS: It’s that dogs are more careful about the social behavior they pay attention to. We just automatically soak up what other individuals are doing, often without realizing it. And dogs can learn from us if they need to, but they don’t have to follow us. In some ways they’re more rational in terms of the social information that they pay attention to.
DUBNER: Okay, so let’s flip it. Rather than critique ourselves, which may be a singularly human trait as well for all I know, let’s see what can we take from your research insight, and apply it to this general notion of making behavior change happen.
SANTOS: Yeah. What we get from this is that we have to be really careful in domains where we’re watching the behavior of other people. And this is something that we’ve known in behavior change for a long time. Behavior change researchers have a phenomenon known as “social proof.” When you see other people doing it, you think it’s a good idea. Most of the time we think of social proof, we think of good things. But there are all these domains in which it seems to go awry.
Classic work in the field of social psychology by Bob Cialdini found that if you hear that a bunch of other people are doing a dastardly thing, without realizing it, you become more likely to do that dastardly thing, too. What we’re realizing is that that’s not necessarily that old a strategy. This might be something that’s human-unique. And that begs us to ask the question, “Okay, why is our species using that strategy?” Maybe it’s good for something in some contexts.
DUBNER: Laurie Santos, thank you so much for being on the show. Great job.
* * *
DUBNER: Welcome back to Freakonomics Radio, recording live tonight in Philadelphia, where we’re learning about the science of behavior change. Would you please welcome our next guest. He’s an economist at the University of Wisconsin School of Business. His research specialties include risk and decision-making and insurance markets. Tell me that doesn’t get you all giddy with excitement. Would you please welcome Justin Sydnor. Okay. Justin, I understand that you’ve done some interesting research on employers’, healthcare-plan options. Yes, is that about right?
Justin SYDNOR: Yes. We’ll see whether the audience agrees it’s interesting. So the backdrop here is that many of us now have choices to make about health insurance plans. And we’re all used to these horrible terms, like deductibles and co-pays and coinsurance. So I did a research project with a couple of co-authors, Saurabh Bhargava and George Loewenstein from Carnegie Mellon. And we got access to a company, a really big company, who decided to do something interesting. They embraced this idea that people should have control over their insurance. You should be able to decide, do you want a lot of insurance or not a lot of insurance? And there’s going to be different premiums tied to that. So they gave people an opportunity to select one of four deductible levels.
DUBNER: And what was the stated intention? Was the company saying to its employees, “We want to give you more options because you’re paying for the insurance, whether you know it or not.” It’s coming out of payroll essentially, right? Or was it the company essentially trying to profit-maximize?
SYDNOR: In this case they had a genuine belief that different employees would care more or less about how much insurance they had, and they were paying part of it through a premium share. They thought why should we dictate whether you have a high-deductible plan with lower premium or a low-deductible plan with a higher premium? So they can choose between different deductible levels, different co-pays, coinsurance, maximum out-of-pocket. So they can pull all these levers and they end up with 48 different possible combinations they could choose from.
DUBNER: Okay. And then you have the real data so you can see what people really choose and then can you see what they actually spend in the coming year?
SYDNOR: Yes. And we can calculate how much would they have spent with a different plan.
DUBNER: Now, to be fair, it’s a little bit of a gamble right? When you buy insurance, you don’t know how much of this you’re going to need to consume. How do you factor that in?
SYDNOR: Well, this is the truly fascinating thing about this case. You’re right. Most of the time, I couldn’t tell you whether you made a good choice or not in your health insurance because it’s going to depend. You might get lucky and it turns out you didn’t really need much insurance. But if you bought insurance I wouldn’t have said that was a mistake. But in this case it actually turned out that most of the plans were a deal that no economist should take. So most of the plans were such that you were going to pay more for sure for the year if you chose that plan. Doesn’t matter if you turn out to be healthy or unhealthy. You’re going to pay more.
DUBNER: How so? It’s just a higher premium and down-the-road, the payments are worse?
SYDNOR: So it’s really the higher premium part that matters. What happens is the plans that had a lower deductible — say I wanted $500 instead of $1,000 — to get that plan I had to pay more than $600 extra in premium for the year. So best-case scenario, I might save $500. I get more insurance, but for sure I already paid over $600 for that.
DUBNER: And you’re talking equivalent benefits in those two cases.
SYDNOR: Yep. You can go to the same doctors, everything’s covered, all the prices are the same. So it’s really an interesting laboratory where we can label something that looks, from at least our classic models, this looks like a financial mistake.
DUBNER: Now, most people don’t like insurance for a number of reasons, including the fact that it’s a little confusing and intimidating. How much of this mistake, as you seem to be labeling it, is just a function of the fact that it’s hard to figure out?
SYDNOR: So one possibility is that this is just choice overload. And if we gave them fewer options, they’d be able to select more rationally from that. Another possibility is that insurance is just really hard. And even if you’re looking at just a couple of options, it’s going to be very hard to tell the difference between them. And the third option is maybe there’s something going on where people just really genuinely are willing to pay more to avoid having these shocks of high deductibles even if they knew for sure.
DUBNER: What about affordability? Because especially for a low-income employee, a smaller amount upfront is attractive. Cash flow is an issue.
SYDNOR: Yep, so in many ways, they were sort of making the reverse option. So what was happening is that they were opting into paying higher premiums, for sure, every month. Now they were potentially protecting themselves a little bit at the very beginning of the year. But over the course of the year they were going to end up paying more money.
The first thing we did is we wanted to figure out, okay, is this the choice overload? Is it the weird thing of 48 plans? And we ran some online choice experiments where we tried to replicate this sort of thing. And what we found very quickly there is you get exactly the same patterns if you just give people four plans or two plans. So it’s really not about choice overload. It’s fundamentally that when people look at insurance, they can’t combine the premium and these out-of-pocket costs and make what looks like the rational math calculation.
DUBNER: Do you think that long ago some insurance company made the very sneaky, wise choice of calling the payment a premium, which sounds like a great thing?
SYDNOR: My general sense from studying insurance is that in the history of the insurance market, few people have made really wise choices. As evidenced by the fact that when you say you hate insurance, everyone in the room nods along.
DUBNER: Okay. So here’s what I’ve learned from you. We’re bad at buying insurance. We’re bad at buying insurance in part because the way it’s described makes it easy for us to be bad at it. Maybe some of the fault lies there. So the big question is, again, let’s flip it, what’s the good news here? How can you take this research insight and apply it to this notion of helping more people make better choices, whether it’s more people on an individual level or societally?
SYDNOR: So the good news is there are ways of making it a way easier. I can add it up, I can show people. And we’ve run some little experiments, and it looks like if you make it easier to compare the plans, you can really easily inform and improve these options.
But maybe the bigger implication is that we should just stop giving people choices about this. And the reason we should stop giving people choices about this is that the only really good reason to give people choices is that we think that they might want to sort into plans that are good for them, and have some bearing on their risk aversion.
DUBNER: But we’re really like four-year olds with a box that’s really hard to open, and we should just bring in the dogs and let them choose our insurance?
SYDNOR: Exactly. Let the dog choose your insurance.
DUBNER: Justin Sydnor, thank you so much. Great to have you here tonight. Let’s welcome our next guest. He is one of the most revered and prolific scholars in modern psychology. He helped identify all sorts of cognitive biases and illusions. He’s also the author of one of my favorite books ever in the world called How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. Would you please welcome, from Cornell University, Tom Gilovich. Tom Gilovich, I understand some of your latest research is on regret, which I’d love to hear more about. And — and really how it fits into your body of work.
Tom GILOVICH: Sure. There’s two types of mistakes we can make in life. Mistakes of action and mistakes of inaction. And therefore, two types of regrets. And the question is, what do people regret more — mistakes of action or mistakes of inaction?
An example that everyone in the audience can relate to: if you go back to your days as a student, you’re taking a multiple-choice test, question number 20, you check B. You’re going on, and then at question 24 you say, “Wait a minute. Backup. Go to question 20. I don’t think it’s B. I think it’s C.” Now you have a dilemma. Do you switch to C? You could make a mistake in doing that. Or you could stay with B. You could make a mistake doing that. Which mistake hurts more? We all recognize that if you switch from the right answer to the wrong answer, you’re going to regret that more.
DUBNER: So all the topics that we’ve been hearing about tonight, whether it’s going to the gym, buying insurance, the way we behave with other people in a social setting, you can imagine scenarios by the billion where you make a choice and regret it. By looking at regret as you have, have you started to learn anything yet about how to just think about optimizing our decisions right here and now?
GILOVICH: Sure. The other side of the regret story, you regret action more than inaction sometimes. But if you ask people what are your biggest regrets in life, they tend to report regrets of inaction. How do you reconcile those two? And the reconciliation is that you feel more immediate pain over the regret of action but, partly because it’s so painful, you do things about it. You think of it differently, and you’ve taken an action and one of the ways that you can come to grips with it is to say, “Well, it was a mistake, but I learned so much.” It’s hard to learn so much by not doing something new.
Over time, these painful regrets of action give way to more painful regrets of inaction. And what are the kinds of inactions that people have? And a great deal of them when we interviewed people, and we’ve interviewed, college students, prisoners in a state prison, a sample of geniuses. In group after group after group, a very frequent regret is one of not doing something because of a fear of social consequences. “What will people think?”
DUBNER: And that calls to mind some of your early research about the spotlight effect, right? Which is we tend to think that people really care about us much more than they do. Yeah?
GILOVICH: Yes. In fact that research we did right on the heels of the research on regret. As David Foster Wallace put it, “You won’t mind so much, how people judge you when you recognize how little they do.” And people often don’t do things that are in their interest because they’re afraid it — it would be embarrassing. I don’t want to go to the gym because I’d get on a treadmill next to someone who’s going a mile a minute and I can’t keep up with that, or I can’t lift those weights.
DUBNER: But let me ask you this: when you mentioned interviewing prisoners, what my mind jumps to is the obvious regret: “I regret doing the thing that turned me into a prisoner.”
GILOVICH: Yeah. They have slightly fewer regrets of inaction than the general population, but still the majority of theirs are regrets of inaction. Now, it’s not that they don’t regret the things that got them into prison, but the way they talk about them often focuses on, an inaction. “If only I’d done this, I wouldn’t have gone down that path.” “If only I’d convinced the lookout person to be on his toes.” So even they tend to focus on things that they didn’t do.
DUBNER: So Tom, I’m just curious — we’re on the subject — I really admire your work. I’ve admired it for years. I want to know your biggest regret.
GILOVICH: Okay, it’s easy. It’s a regret of inaction. I didn’t think of this until five years after I got married, and I recognized at that time, “I have a solution to the naming problem.” What name do you take? We live in a world where it’s sexist. A woman takes the man’s name. Other cultures, they combine them, but that only works for one generation. You can’t have a multiplying name. So what to do?
My regret is I didn’t think of it on the eve of my wedding, what I would like to have done, not told anyone about it: ceremony goes, and then at the very end I say, “Wait a minute. There’s one more thing. We’re going to flip a coin to decide what the last name is.” Because it’s fair. But what I like even more about it is that we don’t have anything, any cultural institutions that celebrate chance, and chance is a huge part of our life. I think it’s my best idea. And unfortunately, it came five years too late.
DUBNER: Tom Gilovich, thank you so much for being on the show tonight.
GILOVICH: Thank you.
DUBNER: So what have we learned tonight? We have learned that humans are regretful, although not necessarily in the right direction. We’re also not very good at buying insurance. We are dumber than dogs, and that’s not a humblebrag. That’s an actual thing. And we are really petty. To make sense of all this and maybe to give us a little hope, I’d like to introduce you to our final guest. He is a recent Nobel Prize recipient. Not the Peace Prize, I’m afraid. Not even, not even the literature prize. It’s just the prize in economics. I’m sorry. It’s the best we could do. So would you please welcome the University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler. Richard Thaler, any day I get to talk to you is a great day. Thanks for being on the show.
Richard THALER: My pleasure.
DUBNER: So you are best known as a primary architect of what’s come to be called behavioral economics, also as co-author of the wonderful book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness and the resultant Nudge Movement. So let’s start with that: how would you describe a nudge?
THALER: So a nudge is some small — possibly small — feature of the environment that influences our choices but still allows us to do anything we want.
DUBNER: Okay. So I would argue that the most successful nudge, and the greatest triumph to date of behavioral economics, has been your work, done with Shlomo Benartzi a couple decades ago, in the realm of retirement savings. You argued that rather than relying on people to opt in to their 401(k), and fill out the 8,000 pages of paperwork and choose from a million investment options that confuse and intimidate people, that it’s better to just automatically enroll them. This has resulted in millions of people saving billions of dollars for their retirement.
So: congratulations, and thank you. But: what does it say about the field of behavioral economics, and behavior change generally, that this largest victory took place a couple decades ago? Where are all the other victories?
THALER: The retirement-saving initiative has been a success because we’ve been able to convince firms that organized retirement plans to make them much simpler. So the choice architecture is simpler. As you mentioned, people are automatically enrolled, so they don’t have to fill out any forms. Then their rates are automatically escalated, and they’re given a default investment fund. So it’s all easy.
It’s no accident that that was a success, because the fix was easy. Give me a problem where I can arrange things so that by doing nothing, people make the right choice, that’s an easy problem.
DUBNER: Well, one feature in this case at least, is that it’s a one-time fix. When Angela and Katy were talking earlier, about their efforts to get people to go to the gym during the treatment period and then to keep going afterwards, that’s having to win the battle every single day. Do you think that too many potential fixes are aimed at essentially unfixable behavior?
THALER: No. Because Katy and Angela have infinite energy, unlike me. And if they can solve the problem of getting people to go to the gym or eat less or take their medicines, I’m all for it. When they started this project my reaction was, “Ooh, this is hard.” And that the — the simple things may not work.
DUBNER: So this Behavior Change for Good project includes a lot of psychologists. What do economists know or have to offer that psychologists don’t? And if your economist ego allows you to say so, vice versa as well?
THALER: Oh, psychologists know a lot more about that than we do. Economists don’t know much about how people form habits or when they stick and when they break.
Let me give you an example that relates to what Mike Norton was talking about. I was in London, I was invited to some meeting that — they were trying to reduce binge drinking. And they asked me if I had any nudge-like ideas. You’re smiling because you think this is a matter of personal importance. But I suggest neither of us go there. In England there’s a tradition, a hallowed tradition, of buying rounds. The way it’s done at the pub is you go with your mates and I would buy the first round and you would buy the second round and until we each bought a round.
Now this has obvious problems if the number of people in the group is more than, say, three. What I suggested was that pubs institute a new policy, which is, for groups of more than three, they run a tab.
Well, this was supposed to be a private meeting, but it leaked to the press and I got hate mail. And people would say “I would never dream of leaving the pub without buying a round for my friends.” And they come with a group of eight. And this is nothing but trouble. I can think up that change in the choice architecture, but how you would get that to change?
Well, I made no progress. We’re human. We have self-control problems. We’re absent-minded. We get distracted. And those things aren’t going to go away. Technology is likely the best answer. Self-driving cars will drive better than us very soon.
DUBNER: I’ve heard you talk about the opposite of a nudge as sludge. Can you describe what sludge is and give an example?
THALER: Nudges typically work by making something easy, like automatically signing you up for the retirement plan. Sludge is the gunk that comes out as a byproduct. And I’m using it for stuff that slows you down in ways that make you worse off. So for example, suppose that there is a subscription and, they automatically renew your subscription. But to unsubscribe you have to call.
And I had this experience. The first review of my book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics came out in the Times of London. My editor sent me an email excitedly telling me this and sending me the link. And I log on and there’s this paywall. And I said, “Oh, I can’t read it.” But there’s a trial subscription for one pound for a month. And I said, “Oh well, I’m willing to pay a pound to read the first review of my book.” But then I start reading the fine print and in order to quit, you have to call London, during London business hours, not on a toll-free line, and you have to give them two weeks’ notice. That is sludge.
DUBNER: So you’re still reading the Times of London, I assume.
THALER: I called my editor and told him that he should buy the subscription and then send me a PDF.
DUBNER: All right. I have a final question for you. You mentioned habit formation, which to me is at the root of just about everything we’ve been talking about tonight. And some habits get formed intentionally, others not. Some habits are good. Some are not. I’m really curious to know, what’s a habit that you never acquired that you really wish you had?
THALER: Doing my homework.
DUBNER: In school, you were not a homework doer?
THALER: I was not a great student.
DUBNER: Yeah, so how does this happen that a guy who is an admittedly not-very-good student, who apparently didn’t do homework, gets a Nobel Prize?
THALER: Well, listening to Tom, maybe it was I was less fearful of embarrassment than my colleagues. I mean, much of my career was similar to the kid who points out that the emperor is naked. And few of my economist colleagues were willing to say that, and I was willing to be ridiculed.
DUBNER: Where do you think that lack of embarrassment came from?
THALER: Possibly stupidity.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was created in partnership with WHYY and was produced by Zack Lapinski, Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, and Corinne Wallace; our staff also includes Matt Hickey and our intern is Daphne Chen. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
The post How Goes the Behavior-Change Revolution? (Ep. 382) appeared first on Freakonomics.[ + ]
Recorded live in San Francisco. Guests include the keeper of a 10,000-year clock, the co-founder of Lyft, a pioneer in male birth control, a specialist in water security, and a psychology professor who is also a puppy. With co-host Angela Duckworth, fact-checker Mike Maughan, and the Freakonomics Radio Orchestra.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
* * *
This week’s episode is a variety show, recorded in front of a live audience. Our guests include the president and co-founder of a huge ride-share company that recently went public, and which isn’t named Uber; you’ll also hear from a futurist, a hydrologist, a microbiologist, and a psychologist with a very interesting side gig.
Stephen J. DUBNER: This week we’re coming to you from San Francisco, with live music by Luis Guerra and the Freakonomics Radio Orchestra; and, as co-host, would you please welcome the University of Pennsylvania psychology professor and the author of Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth. Angela, I understand that you, before you were super-gritty, taught math here in San Francisco. Is that true?
Angela DUCKWORTH: That is a correct statement. I taught at Lowell High School. One thing that’s interesting about math is that unbeknownst to most students, actually, girls get higher report-card grades in math than boys, on average. It’s really a striking advantage. And yet boys are dramatically more confident than girls in that subject.
DUBNER: Good to know. We’ll see if we can extend that stereotype tonight. So Angela, for these live recordings we sometimes play a game called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” where we bring onstage a series of guests from various disciplines, and we ask them to tell us about their work. You and I ask some questions, and ultimately our live audience will vote for their favorite guest — maybe someone they’d like to hear more from in a future episode.
The voting criteria are very simple. No. 1, did they tell us something we truly did not know? No. 2, was it worth knowing. And No. 3, was it demonstrably true? And to help with that demonstrably-true part, we’ve hired a real-time fact checker. He is the head of global insights at Qualtrics, and he’s co-founder of Five for the Fight, the campaign to eradicate cancer. Would you please welcome Mike Maughan. Mike, do have any San Francisco connections as well?
Mike MAUGHAN: So, I do. I grew up in Utah, which is where Steve Young went to college. So interestingly, a lot of us were 49ers fans when we were young, and when we were memorizing our times tables, as we got to seven times seven, instead of just saying 49, everyone would be like, 49ers. When we got to seven times six, we would say “Jerry Rice,” because he was 42.
DUBNER: Wasn’t Jerry Rice number 80?
MAUGHAN: Yeah. Yep. So to harken to Angela’s thing about men having misplaced confidence in their math abilities, we were really sure he was number 42. Big fans out there. Big, big fans.
DUBNER: All right, let’s get started. Our first guest tonight, would you please welcome John Zimmer. John, I’m sure that for those people who don’t recognize your name, they will certainly recognize your job title, so would you please tell us all what you do?
John ZIMMER: I’m the co-founder and president of Lyft.
DUBNER: Can you give us briefly, the origin story of Lyft, which was originally, I know, called Zimride, and I assumed you obnoxiously named it after yourself. But that’s not true, is it?
ZIMMER: That’s not true. I’ve been trying to correct the record for a while. So, Logan Green, my co-founder, was born in L.A. surrounded by traffic, and he hated that. And he started building a solution for himself. He took the bus. He built a car-sharing program like Zipcar, before Zipcar would come to college campuses. And he got the attention of the local transit board. So he got elected as the youngest member ever to the transit board in Santa Barbara County. He was the only person on the board that actually rode the bus. He then went to Zimbabwe and saw people sharing rides out of necessity and got the idea to create a carpooling network called Zimride. So Zimride was named after Zimbabwe.
DUBNER: So John, your firm, Lyft, went public in late March at a share price of $72, which represented at the time a company valuation of about $24 billion. Lyft shares have since fallen to below $60, which represents a decline of more than $7 billion. So John, we are just a humble podcast and public-radio show, but would you like us to buy you some dinner after the show?
ZIMMER: Sure. I’ll take it.
DUBNER: Are you okay?
ZIMMER: I’m doing alright.
DUBNER: Uber, your larger rival, has experienced a similar drop in market cap since it had its I.P.O. several weeks after yours. So the central objection of investors seems to be that both companies are still losing, for now, lots of money, and that investors don’t necessarily see a clear way to change that. So how do you become profitable, long-run?
ZIMMER: So we like being the underdogs, we like when people don’t necessarily see what we see. That’s how we got our start. And so the path is quite simple, there’s two main pieces. One is: rides are profitable in most markets. And then obviously we have to cover our overhead. And so the more rides that we do the more that it covers that which doesn’t scale with the growth.
And secondly, per-ride, variable costs, things like insurance, are coming down. And will continue to come down. And we have a very clear path to profitability, with $3.5 billion in the bank and we intend to invest that well to get a good return for our investors.
DUCKWORTH: So assuming things do go as expected and you are one day not the underdog, what’s your strategy for maintaining— is that really part of the Lyft identity?
ZIMMER: No, I think that we walked into that— our mission is to improve people’s lives with the world’s best transportation. Cities, unfortunately, have been designed around car infrastructure. And cars are used four percent of the time, which means they’re parked the rest of the time. And American families are spending $9,000 every year owning and operating a car. Americans spend more money on the car that they use four or five percent of the time than they do on food. And to us that doesn’t make any sense. At the same time, there’s job opportunities that are being created by giving other people rides and we think that we are on day one of a very long journey in redesigning cities around people.
DUBNER: So I want to talk to you about autonomous vehicles, because it’s fascinating on a number of levels. Safety, etc. And I guess from your perspective, there is the issue of labor, because I assume that your biggest cost right now is labor, drivers, correct?
DUBNER: All right. So we’ve been hearing about autonomous travel for a while now, and we’ve seen them being tested pretty successfully for a long time now in different settings. Why is it taking so much longer than— five years ago, the optimists and futurists were promising? What are the biggest barriers right now?
ZIMMER: So mostly it’s technology and then cost. From a technology perspective, we think differently than a car manufacturer. So a car manufacturer thinks about, when can I design an autonomous vehicle that can do every trip type, 100 percent of that trip? For us, we think about, when can we do an autonomous vehicle trip safely for 100 percent of one trip type? And if that trip type is a fixed route, similar to a transit route and we can do that safely at the right cost, then we’ll start building in that way, rather than trying to do it all at once.
DUBNER: Is that similar to what Lyft is doing now in Vegas?
ZIMMER: Yes. So you can get an autonomous car today in Vegas. There is a safety driver. And there are various points, slightly over 10 different locations, that you can either get picked up or dropped off at. So the routes are more known than if it’s just a random destination.
DUCKWORTH: So what impact will Lyft have on culture? Because it really was part of the American—
ZIMMER: The root of that American Dream was freedom. Right? So whenever you see an auto ad, they show you in a car, if you have long hair blowing in the wind. Maybe in a convertible. And it’s amazing. And there’s no traffic. It’s not real. There’s been this dream of cars and freedom that was promised to us by the car. Instead of a $9,000 ball and chain, which the car has become, you can get that actual freedom.
DUBNER: Do you own a car?
ZIMMER: I do. I am a Lyft driver on occasion.
DUBNER: You sound a little sheepish about the fact that you own a car.
DUBNER: You are? You’re conflicted?
ZIMMER: Yeah, I feel a little guilty about it.
DUBNER: How often do you act as a Lyft driver?
ZIMMER: At least once a year. I have a tradition every— hey, there’s been a lot going on.
DUBNER: So let me ask you this. Lyft and Uber are one of the most famous duopolies in America right now. Right up there with Coke and Pepsi and the Republicans and the Democrats. Historically, duopolies go in one of two directions. They either compete to death on prices, or they tacitly collude. And I’m really curious how you see the two firms playing out. Do you think there’s room for both? Does one inevitably eat or kill the other?
ZIMMER: Got it. So there’s room for both. And it’s a good thing. Competition to treat drivers well, competition to treat passengers well, that’s good. And that’s happened. That’s played out. But there was a period of time where I woke up, maybe about five years ago, and Uber had raised $3 billion. And we had a lot of money, $100 million. But they had 30 times the capital and they pointed it at us and tried to kill us. We stuck to our mission, taking care of our drivers and passengers. And we’ve been able to thrive, build enough density in our cities to offer a similar E.T.A., which was the critical part, and then to treat both drivers and passengers better so that you get better customer service.
DUBNER: You used to have this pink fuzzy mustache, that was the Lyft thing. And you don’t anymore. And it makes me sad. And I want to know why.
ZIMMER: Sorry. But I’m glad to hear you liked it. We wanted to get people to smile. Honestly, that was the idea. We were creating a new way for people to get around. Historically, your parents told you never get in a car with strangers, and never take candy from a stranger. So we did driver background checks. We did criminal record checks, but it wasn’t normal to get into someone else’s car. And so by putting the pink mustache on the front, it made it a Lyft. It made you notice it. And it created an incredible word-of-mouth buzz, where people would say, “What the heck is that? And now I’ve seen three of them today.” And then people had to talk about it.
DUCKWORTH: Why did you disband this brilliant marketing move?
ZIMMER: When we did it it was a launch idea. And by the time we were buying tens of thousands, and potentially hundreds of thousands, of large pink furry mustaches it was a bit ridiculous. And we were operating in markets that had rain and snow, and they did not do so well. We were researching different types of materials that would be weather-proof. But it got absurd.
DUBNER: Mike Maughan, John Zimmer tells us about Lyft, and its autonomous future, and our autonomous future. Anything you heard that caught your fact checker’s ear?
MAUGHAN: Okay, so I’ve been searching car commercials and you’re right. I can’t find any of that show people in traffic jams. And there are a remarkable number of people in them who have long hair, so well-played on all counts. Interestingly, in three of the first four pictures of male drivers in car commercials on Google Image search, they have mustaches. So it is creepy.
But I’m curious, will different autonomous Lyft vehicles have different personality traits just like different Lyft drivers? For example, could I get an autonomous pickup truck that plays country music, while maybe another is a hatchback that always has N.P.R. on just a little too quietly for you to actually hear?
DUBNER: John Zimmer from Lyft, thank you so much for joining us tonight. Our next guest is the former senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab at Caltech. He now runs the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. Would you please welcome Jay Famiglietti. So Jay, water, I guess, is fairly important to humanity. So tell us something we don’t know about your particular area of expertise, water security.
Jay FAMIGLIETTI: Well, Stephen, most of the world’s accessible or unfrozen freshwater — in fact, about 96 percent of it, is actually invisible. It’s stored beneath the surface as groundwater. That water that we see flowing in rivers and lakes and stored in reservoirs, that makes up only about 4 percent of accessible freshwater.
Over the past couple of decades, I’ve led a team of researchers that use novel satellite data to map how groundwater storage is changing, something that was impossible before, and yet is paramount to understanding our global water future. This has really allowed us to make something that was previously invisible visible.
DUBNER: Does your satellite project have a name?
FAMIGLIETTI: It does. It’s called G.R.A.C.E., which stands for Gravity, Recovery, and Climate Experiment. It’s quite novel, in the sense that it functions like a scale. It actually weighs the different regions of the world that are gaining or losing water mass on a monthly basis.
DUBNER: Okay, so what did you learn when you were able for the first time to measure groundwater around the world?
FAMIGLIETTI: Well, we learned, unfortunately, that most of the world’s major aquifers are being depleted at a pretty rapid clip. In fact, over half of the world’s major aquifers are past sustainability tipping points and they’re being quite rapidly drained.
DUCKWORTH: So from a behavioral science perspective, the things that people can’t see— I mean, you can tell them 96 percent of the world’s water is not visible, and it’s being depleted. It’s really hard for human beings to appreciate things that are not in front of them. How are you communicating that broadly?
FAMIGLIETTI: It’s certainly a challenge. That’s part of the reason why groundwater hasn’t been well-managed through the years, because we don’t see it. So we’ve been able to produce maps that show how these aquifers are being depleted. We’ve been able to produce animations. And we use those basic traffic-signal colors, we go from green to yellow to red. And that really works with people, that really resonates.
DUBNER: So that may work with people and resonate maybe for some behavioral stuff, especially individual level. But what has your evidence of depletion done on a policy level?
FAMIGLIETTI: Well, we have contributed to the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in California in 2014.
DUBNER: Now, California was late to the game, though, for statewide water management, yes?
FAMIGLIETTI: Yes, sadly so. So, California was the last state in the United States to adopt groundwater management. It’s tough to give up something that you’ve had free access to for a long time, and California is a big agricultural state. And we grow a lot of food, and it takes a lot of water. So, it was much-needed, because without any kind of groundwater management we would run out of groundwater.
DUBNER: So, can we just back up and get some basic earth science, because I want to make sure that a), I remember what I learned; and b); that what we learned was actually right. Because if I understand what you’re saying, there are kind of two classes of water. There’s groundwater— aquifers, you’re calling it. And then there’s surface water. And most of it is underground. And we were not able to know how much there was in different places until you put your satellite up there, correct? All right so far?
DUBNER: But one thing we learned in earth science is that, well, the Earth’s water supply is replenishable and there’s a finite amount — what you lose via evaporation you get returned in precipitation. That’s what happens for surface water, I gather, but groundwater, aquifer — different story? Not replenished?
FAMIGLIETTI: So I think your teachers taught you well. What you’re talking about really refers to the globe. And so we’re not losing any water, we’re not gaining any water, so we have a mass balance. But in a particular region, say in the Central Valley, not far from where we are right now, we pump a lot of water to grow food. A lot of that water evaporates, a lot of that water runs off, a lot of it ends up embedded in food. And it does not necessarily come back to the aquifer. We don’t destroy the water, it just ends up someplace different.
DUCKWORTH: Where is it going?
FAMIGLIETTI: I don’t know, I haven’t figured it out. No, the truth is when we look at the global maps that we produce, we see that the Northern high latitudes of boreal, North America and Eurasia, and the tropics, are getting wetter. And it’s the mid-latitudes that are getting drier. So there’s a redistribution from the mid-latitudes to the high and low latitudes, and also from the land to the ocean.
DUBNER: Is it like, you guys grow, let’s say, a bunch of zucchini here, and then it gets shipped to Philadelphia, where Angela lives, and she eats zucchini and ends up peeing out the water there? Is that really what’s happening?
FAMIGLIETTI: That’s exactly what’s happening. You’re eating our groundwater.
DUBNER: So the solution is to ban zucchini, plainly.
DUBNER: So we’ve been hearing for years that the next wars will be fought not over land, not over oil or diamonds, but over water. So when does that happen, and where?
FAMIGLIETTI: So, it’s actually happening in different ways around the world. A lot of the hot spots for water insecurity are transboundary — they straddle political boundaries. And so the Middle East, of course, is a real tinderbox, and there’s water insecurity problems on the India/Pakistan border and in Bangladesh. And, in South America, there is a huge aquifer there called the Guarani Aquifer that spans the boundaries of Chile and Uruguay and Argentina. There’s small skirmishes that we don’t hear about, and there’s bigger ones that I think will be happening in the future.
DUCKWORTH: So what can individual consumers do to reduce the depletion?
FAMIGLIETTI: Dietary changes are huge. Moving from less meat to more plant-based, would save a tremendous amount of water. That means more zucchini, by the way. Maybe the most important thing we can do is really raise our expectations of our elected officials and demand that they discuss their water policy. What is their platform?
DUBNER: I’d love you to name a couple of countries that manage their water well, and I’m really curious to know when a country manages its water well, how much of that management involves pricing water well, because I’ve been told that America — one thing we’ve done not very well, particularly in California, is price water as the market would price it.
FAMIGLIETTI: Israel does a great job managing its water, monitoring its water. They’ve been pioneers of agricultural efficiency, with drip irrigation and crop breeding—
DUBNER: And desalination, yes?
FAMIGLIETTI: And desalination and sewage recycling. I’m actually not sure about the pricing. But that’s a different thing. When the state owns the water you have a lot more control. Australia is doing a great job with policy innovations, and they’re really progressive about allocations for water for the environment, water to grow food, water for economic growth.
Closer to home, this groundwater problem is huge. The other big aquifer in the United States is the high plains, or the Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches north to south across the middle part of the country. And Kansas has turned out to be quite progressive in its management of groundwater. They’ve been able to define very carefully what it means to be sustainable, and they’ve worked to integrate policy and research and education, and even farm extension to get their innovations into practice.
But what we like to say in the water world is that there’s no silver bullet — it’s going to take a portfolio approach of water markets and water trading, and sewage recycling, and desalination, and conservation. And we have a wonderful tap water system here in the United States, and we seem to have forgotten it.
DUBNER: Mike Maughan, Jay Famiglietti, who worked on an amazing-sounding satellite project that measured global groundwater — does any of this check out?
MAUGHAN: Okay, so much of the things you’re saying can be corroborated. Saudi Arabia, they overused their aquifers. They used to be the sixth-largest producer of wheat in the world, and they went from that to not producing any in 2016, because they fully depleted their aquifers. And because of the aquifer situation — we’re depleting them so quickly that parts of California are literally sinking. There are a few major trouble spots near Merced and Bakersfield that continue to sink as much as two feet per year because of the aquifer depletion. The question is, “what are they sinking about?”
DUBNER: Jay, let me ask you one more question before we let you go. You obviously know a great deal about the overall water situation, the costs and benefits of water, etc.; I feel you didn’t accentuate the doom-and-gloom scenario. So can you just tell us, on a scale of one to 10, where do we lie in addressing this problem generally?
FAMIGLIETTI: We are completely and utterly screwed.
DUBNER: I would’ve led with that if I were you. Well, I enjoyed talking to you a lot up till now, Jay Famiglietti, thank you so much for coming on our show. Would you please welcome our next guest. She is a medical microbiologist who works out of a lab at the University of California, Berkeley and she is the co-founder of a firm called YourChoice Therapeutics. Please welcome Nadja Mannowetz. Nadja, I understand your specialty is the physiology of mammalian fertilization, which is the unsexiest description of sex I have ever heard. So tell us something we don’t know, please.
Nadja MANNOWETZ: I’m developing the first non-hormonal contraceptive for men.
DUBNER: So first of all, I’m very curious whether the applause is for the non-hormonal or for the men.
MANNOWETZ: For both.
DUBNER: Yeah. So explain why non-hormonal is significant, first of all.
MANNOWETZ: So I think many women in the audience know this, who have been using hormone-based birth control options such as the Pill — hormones, you take them repeatedly, they screw up your whole bodily function. So women have been dealing with side effects that come with hormonal contraceptives for the past 60, 70 years. And all the attempts so far that have been made to develop a male contraceptive, also have been hormone-based. Just think about bodybuilders. They might start taking additional testosterone just to build up more muscles, but then their testes would shrink, so their balls get smaller.
DUBNER: Yeah, we know what testes are here. Thank you very much.
DUCKWORTH: By the way, why is that? It’s kind of in the opposite direction—
MAUGHAN: Yeah. Let’s spend more time on this. That’s great.
DUCKWORTH: I want to know. I’m curious.
MANNOWETZ: So, spermatogenesis, or the production of sperm cells, is driven by testosterone. Testosterone levels, they need to be in a certain range. If there’s not enough or too much testosterone, then spermatogenesis is stopped. Once there are less sperm cells within testes, there’s just less cellular mass. And so the whole little organ— or not so little—
DUCKWORTH: Just shrinks.
DUBNER: What is the evidence that men are particularly interested in birth control?
MANNOWETZ: So, whenever we talk to young men, they just get super excited. They’re like, “This is awesome. I want to take responsibility in birth control because my girlfriend, my wife, my partner, she just can’t take hormonal contraceptives,” and just, it’s the right thing to do.
DUCKWORTH: So one reason why Stephen may have that curiosity is the evolutionary pressure to propagate. So I think you might be wondering what market appetite there would be for not passing on your genes to the next generation, when we’ve been evolving to do exactly that. I don’t disbelieve you. But how do you reconcile the evolutionary drive to propagate with the contemporary desire to not have a million children?
MANNOWETZ: Just because you are using a contraceptive does not mean you will never spread your genes. You have a tool to time it in a much better way.
DUBNER: So what is the best word for what you’ve worked on? Is it an invention? Is it an application?
MANNOWETZ: Well, it’s medicine. We are a pharmaceutical company.
DUBNER: Okay. So first tell us how it works. Chemically, scientifically, what are you actually doing to make it work?
MANNOWETZ: Okay, so imagine you are a sperm cell and you—
DUBNER: Got it.
MANNOWETZ: And you want to fertilize the egg that’s waiting miles away from you. Not miles, but let’s say it’s 10 inches.
MANNOWETZ: So you are the tiniest cell and you have to travel a certain distance. You need energy to spread love and the genes. And what we do, we prevent sperm cells from producing enough energy. We also prevent them from developing a motility pattern that sperm cells need to push through the protective layers that surround the egg.
DUBNER: So the sperm swim to where they’re going, and then they need to penetrate. Yes? And are those two different kinds of motility modes?
MANNOWETZ: Yes. That switch from motility pattern one to two is initiated by progesterone. So we are identifying small molecules that prevent progesterone from binding to the sperm tail. So sperm will never get into that crazy motility mode, and they just keep swimming. They have no idea that they are so close and so far away.
DUCKWORTH: And just to clarify, it’s the female’s progesterone?
DUCKWORTH: Okay, got it.
DUBNER: So when does this happen? When does this medicine come to market, let’s say?
MANNOWETZ: It’s a more than a decade-long process, because we need to get F.D.A. approval. So our first product is actually a female contraceptive that is vaginally administered. It’s also non-hormonal, and you could also say it’s the first female on-demand contraceptive. It doesn’t matter where we go after sperm cells, whether we would do it in a man’s body or a woman’s body. I mean, these are the two places where sperm cells usually are.
DUBNER: I am really curious about whether this discovery has any implications for infertility. If you’ve learned to slow down sperm or make them weaker, can you speed them up or make them stronger for people who are trying to have kids and can’t?
MANNOWETZ: Excellent point. And the answer is yes.
DUBNER: So if this were the first version of non-hormonal male birth control how would the medicine be administered? How often, how long would it last, and I guess, well, when I say how long would it last, is, how reversible is it?
MANNOWETZ: So we know from literature research that it is fairly or quickly reversible. But sure, we would need to do first in human testing to get a very correct answer to that. How regularly would men have to take it? We would think perhaps daily or every other day, because men, they keep producing sperm cells 24/7.
DUCKWORTH: You know, I wonder about getting a guy to do anything every day. Is that possible? Have you considered the sort of behavioral science challenges?
MANNOWETZ: I think if we compare a college kid with a 45-year-old married husband, then I think we are talking about opposite people. But, but we would love, to create a culture where fathers would talk about their sons— about a method of birth control, rather than daughters just exclusively talking to their moms.
DUBNER: Mike Maughan, Nadja Mannowetz has been telling us about a fascinating discovery, and a series of events that lead to contraception for men, and it’s non-hormonal. Tell us what you found.
MAUGHAN: So a few things. You’ve talked a little bit about sperm swim strokes. Researchers at U.C.L.A. found that there are four different ways that sperm swim. In addition to the two that you talked about; one, which is most common, is this head forward dash toward the egg. Four to five percent of sperm swim in curved tracks like moving along a slinky. A smaller percentage just swim willy-nilly. We all know a few people that got born from one of those. You know what I mean?
I think the worry that some have is that evolutionary biology is so powerful that the sperm may figure out how to break through this and adapt and survive. For example, I don’t know if you’ve seen this amazing movie Jurassic Park. But we worry that we know how this ends, and everyone’s going to get pregnant anyway.
DUBNER: Thank you, Mike. And Nadja Mannowetz: thank you so much for joining us tonight.
* * *
DUBNER: Welcome back to Freakonomics Radio Live. I’m Stephen Dubner. My co-host is Angela Duckworth. Our live fact checker is Mike Maughan. And we’ve got live music tonight from Luis Guerra and the Freakonomics Radio Orchestra. Would you please welcome our next guest. He is executive director of the Long Now Foundation. Alexander Rose. Alexander, welcome. Let’s start with a, a simple question: what is the Long Now foundation and what are your goals?
Alexander ROSE: The Long Now Foundation was started a little over 20 years ago by mostly technologists here in the Bay Area, who, at the time we were realizing that the technological pace was really driving most decisions, rather than the amount of time we actually need to solve problems. The notion was to get people to think about the long term and to identify projects that are worth doing over that time span. And computer scientist Danny Hillis, who’d been building some of the fastest supercomputers in the world out of M.I.T., he thought, well, what if I built the slowest computer in the world? And his thought was, a 10,000-year, all-mechanical, monument-sized clock as a kind of icon to long-term thinking.
DUBNER: And that’s what you’re actually beginning to build, or building? In western Texas?
ROSE: Yeah, well, most of the machinery is actually built here on the West Coast, and very close to here in the Bay Area is where we do all the assembly and testing, and then it gets shipped out to West Texas.
DUBNER: And it’s meant to last 10,000 years, correct, the clock?
ROSE: And keep working for 10,000 years, yes.
DUBNER: And is it meant to be primarily a symbol of long-termism, or is it meant to start a conversation about what time means, etc.?
ROSE: Yeah, the idea is to challenge your thoughts about time, and there’s a lot of ways you could do that. We could have a white paper that talks about this. But what we were trying to do is create something on a mythic scale that’s kind of the Grand Canyon but for time. A large art piece in the desert that is a monument to long-term thinking.
DUCKWORTH: Some psychologists think that the ability to prospect into the future, to create mental simulations — movies in your head about what could happen if I do this, but what would happen if I instead did that — that is actually what makes us uniquely human. And that no other animal on the planet does it quite as much as we do, quite as far into the future. How have you wrestled with this?
ROSE: So really, we’re working in the place of myth and storytelling. What you do is, you open up options for the next generation, and you trust the next generation. Most systems in place right now are becoming less trustful of that future. And by definition, the next generation always is going to have more information. They’re going to have vastly better ways of making a decision about their present than we do about our future. So it’s odd that we don’t trust them to do that.
And you look at something like the Bill of Rights, which is this very short document of principles that’s one-and-a-half sentences each. And all of that was meant that each generation would interpret it into the future. Whereas you look at a modern law, like the health care bill, let’s say. Twelve hundred pages. The goal of that whole thing was to make sure nobody would ever interpret it in a different way in the future than we were in the present. And I think those are the kind of mistakes that we make, and we want to call out. If you were making decisions that reduce the decision-making power of the future, you’re probably doing it wrong.
DUBNER: I want to ask you a question based on what you just said. I don’t know if it’s a challenge or a corroboration of what you just said, honestly, as I’m thinking it through. But on the surface, it seems like a great idea to encourage long-term thinking, prima facie, yes. Especially for problem-solving. But as history shows, most predictions about the future generally turn out to be wrong. In part because technologies come along that we couldn’t have anticipated.
So I think about food production, where the smart money, 50, 80, 100, 200 years ago, was always saying, “If the global population reaches another billion, there’s no way we can grow enough food for everyone.” And yet, we continue to surpass that. So I do wonder about the potential downsides of a certain kind of long-term thinking, in that the solutions that might seem sensible today might in fact be useless in the future, depending on what technologies emerge that we can’t anticipate.
ROSE: Long-term thinking can be weaponized. I think the worst historical example of this is the Thousand-Year Reich. And I think we’re even seeing some of the ways that policy is being done around women’s bodies right now, is around taking rights away from a future generation. And that’s— you’re not trusting that future. So it’s less about trying to plan for that future than it is to trust that people in the future are actually going to do a better job than you are.
DUBNER: I understand the Long Now foundation is based in a bar?
ROSE: Yeah. It’s become one of the top first-date bars in San Francisco. It’s kind of, Tinder date, Tinder date, Tinder date, all the way down the bar.
DUBNER: Talk about the opposite of long-termism, though.
ROSE: We could have some kids coming.
DUBNER: Hey Alexander, I know you’re not gonna be around in 10,000 years, unless you know something that I really don’t know. But do you think that Lyft will be profitable by then?
ROSE: I took a Lyft here, so that’s a good sign.
DUBNER: Alexander Rose, thank you so much. It is time for our final guest tonight. Would you please welcome Phillip Hammack. It says here you are a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. You are also the director of the Sexual and Gender Diversity Lab there, at U.C. Santa Cruz. Correct? And I also understand that you are the founder of Fog City Pack, which is a family of gay men who identify as puppies.
Phillip HAMMACK: This is correct.
DUBNER: And honestly, I didn’t think this evening could get any more interesting, but it did. And I mean, dayenu, it would have been enough without this. But, I’d love to know, first of all, what’s your pup name and where does it come from?
HAMMACK: My name is Pup Turbo. I was named Turbo by the man that I was in a relationship with, in which we engaged in a practice called puppy play.
DUBNER: What is puppy play?
HAMMACK: So puppy play involves human beings taking on the traits and mannerisms of puppies. And we do it as a way to express affection with each other and to role play within a relationship.
DUBNER: Is it always private? Is it sometimes public?
HAMMACK: It can be either, actually. The public version actually involves large groups of people, usually gay men. And we get into the headspace of being a puppy by putting on particular gear. For example, we have muzzles and we have other types of gear. We have tails. I have a tail, actually, that wags. It’s cute. And we get on all fours and we kind of do what you would see dogs doing in the park, playing with chew toys, playing fetch. There are people in the community that role play as dog owners, or what we call handlers or trainers.
DUBNER: So is puppy play a subset of, a category of B.D.S.M.?
HAMMACK: Yes. It emerged from the larger B.D.S.M. community. That is correct. And it turns out that if you’re new to kink, the puppy play community is a great way to start, because it’s a very nurturing way of doing B.D.S.M.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, what is kink? Can I ask that?
DUBNER: You just did.
HAMMACK: You just did. And I can answer. Kink — we should clarify, is really about play. It’s, it’s about role play, and it’s about play with power and role dynamics in that regard. If you think about the relationship between a dog owner and their puppy, it’s one of sweetness, of caring, of love. And so, on the scale of B.D.S.M.-style relationships, it’s a really soft way of doing B.D.S.M.
DUBNER: And does it relate to your academic work?
HAMMACK: Absolutely. So puppy play is just one very small part, I think, of this much larger umbrella of intimate diversity that’s happening in the 21st century. And truly I’ve come to believe it’s actually a revolution in how we think about sexuality and how we think about gender and relationships.
DUBNER: What would you say have been some of the most noteworthy changes lately regarding sexual identity in the U.S., overall, especially younger people?
HAMMACK: So my research actually is focused on L.G.B.T. youth, so, high school-age youth. And we wanted to look at what the experience of L.G.B.T. teens is in different kinds of settings. So we’re here in the Bay Area working with teenagers here, as well as in the Central Valley. I was really interested in what that different experience might be like in those settings.
And I was totally blown away by the fact that it was very similar across these settings. Even though the settings themselves are very distinct. I mean, the Central Valley is historically more hostile toward sexual and gender diversity, whereas the Bay Area is historically much more supportive. I just kind of figured we would see patterns that kind of matched onto that. And instead what we saw was this incredible explosion of new vocabulary around sexuality and gender among teenagers.
One of the activities that I have the students do is, on the first day of class, before they’ve even seen the syllabus, just name out any sexual identities you can think of. And I would put them on the board. When I first started teaching the class, in 2010, it was everything you would think: gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight. The basics. By 2015, I mean, only five years later, suddenly I was filling three entire chalkboards with new labels. I had one section of the chalkboard called the Google section, which were terms I didn’t know what they meant.
DUBNER: When you filled up three chalkboards worth of categories, was puppy play part of that?
HAMMACK: It was. And that totally blew my mind. Because—
DUBNER: And it didn’t come from you.
HAMMACK: It did not come from me. By the way, my favorite on that list was sapiosexual, which means attraction to the trait of intelligence.
DUBNER: We got a room full of them tonight.
HAMMACK: But what I realized is that young people were really using entirely new vocabularies and labels. And so for example, in that study, I found that 24 percent of the young people I worked with were identifying as gender non-binary, so neither male nor female, and 71 percent were identifying with a— what we call a pluri-sexual identity label, which means pansexual, bisexual, or queer, attraction to multiple genders. This was among the L.G.B.T. community. But that’s a real sea change from my generation, where the only options were really very binary.
DUCKWORTH: So the nature of categories is that they are qualitatively distinct, and if you’re in this category, you’re not in that category. And if you’re filling three chalkboards now and there are more chalkboards in the future, is it possible that there will not be any categories? That we won’t identify with any of these labels at some point, because there is the plurality of them, and that the boundaries have been blurred sufficiently?
HAMMACK: That’s a wonderful question. I do think what will happen is, we will get away from this idea of normality — or normativity, as we sometimes call it — and instead what we’re going to embrace is radical diversity and radical authenticity in how people experience their lives. And what I mean by radical authenticity is simply that people are now able to really embody what they feel on the inside, in the way they present themselves externally, in the way they want to conduct their relationships, in the way they want to be in the world.
I tell my students, this is one of the best times to be straight, because— they’re shocked. Because heterosexuality is opening up like never before. We’re finding that more and more people are identifying as mostly straight.
And by the way, this is not just women. About 10 years ago, there was a lot of research on sexual fluidity, indicating that women seemed to shift labels with great frequency. Now, their original research didn’t actually contain a comparative sample of men, so they didn’t know. But the assumption was, historically, men just choose a camp, gay or straight, and that’s where they stay. However, really exciting new research is showing that men are now just as likely to potentially— not only change sexual identity labels, but they’re also more and more comfortable with engaging in some kind of same-sex contact, and that not meaning they’re gay, or necessarily even bisexual. So they can say, “Hey, I’m heteroflexible.”
DUBNER: I have a question, Phillip. It’s more of a statement, really. So 60 million households in the U.S. have a dog as a pet and only 47 million have a cat. I interpret this as proof that dogs are superior to cats. Is that true?
HAMMACK: I’m a little biased. I have to admit.
DUBNER: Phillip Hammack, I thank you so much for telling us something we definitely did not know. And can we have one more round of applause for all our guests tonight? It is time now for our live audience to tell us who their favorite guest was tonight. Let’s remember the criteria: Did they tell us something we truly did not know? Did they tell us something that was worth knowing? And was it demonstrably true? So, who’s it going to be?
- John Zimmer, with Lyft and our autonomous future,
- Jay Famiglietti, with invisible water made visible,
- Nadja Mannowetz, with a male birth control pill,
- Alexander Rose, with the view from 10,000 years out, or
- Phillip Hammack, with a new kind of puppy love.
DUBNER: Okay, the audience vote is in. Once again, thank you so much to all our guest presenters. And our grand prize winner tonight, for telling us about her male birth control pill: Nadja Mannowetz. Congratulations. And to commemorate this victory, we’d like to present you, Nadja, with this Certificate of Impressive Knowledge. It reads, “I, Stephen Dubner, in consultation with Angela Duckworth and Mike Maughan, do hereby attest that Nadja Mannowetz told us something that we did not know, for which we are so, so grateful.” That is our show for tonight. I really hope we told you something you didn’t know. Huge thanks to Mike and Angela, to our guests, to Luis Guerra and the Freakonomics Radio Orchestra. And thanks especially to all of you for listening this week and every week to Freakonomics Radio. Good night.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. Our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, Matt Hickey, and Corinne Wallace; we had help this week from Morgan Levey, Dan Dzula, and Nellie Osbourne. Our intern is Daphne Chen. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
Recorded live in Los Angeles. Guests include Mayor Eric Garcetti, the “Earthquake Lady,” the head of the Port of L.A., and a scientist with NASA’s Planetary Protection team. With co-host Angela Duckworth, fact-checker Mike Maughan, and the worldwide debut of Luis Guerra and the Freakonomics Radio Orchestra.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
* * *
Stephen DUBNER: This week, Freakonomics Radio being recorded live at the Theater at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Our show is typically produced in a studio. Tonight, not only do we have the pleasure of working with a live audience, but also live music. So would you please welcome, in their worldwide debut, the composer behind the music you hear on our show every week: Luis Guerra and the Freakonomics Radio Orchestra. And also joining us tonight as co-host: the University of Pennsylvania psychology professor — she’s also the author of the great book Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance — would you please welcome Angela Duckworth. Angela, hello.
Angela DUCKWORTH: Hi Stephen.
DUBNER: I’m dying to know what you’re working on that we should all know about.
DUCKWORTH: I recently did an eight-minute intervention. We asked students to give advice to other students. So we didn’t give them money, we didn’t give them information, we simply asked them to help other kids. They answered questions about how not to procrastinate, how to stay off their cell phone, in eight minutes. And then we followed them for a full marking period. And the students, just by being asked for their advice got more motivated and did better in school.
DUBNER: So just telling other people what they should do with their lives makes you better off?
DUCKWORTH: It’s not intuitive because everyone does that all the time. But in this particular case, the way we asked the questions, yeah.
DUBNER: I like it. Angela, as you know, we sometimes play a game during these live shows, called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.” And what we do is we bring onstage a series of guests from various backgrounds and disciplines. And we will ask them to tell us something particularly interesting about their field. You and I will then ask them some questions. And then later on, our live audience will pick a winner.
The criteria are very simple. No. 1: did they tell us something we truly did not know? No. 2: was it worth knowing? And No. 3: was it demonstrably true? And to help with that demonstrably true part, would you please welcome our real-time fact checker. He is the head of Global Insights at Qualtrics, he’s the co-founder of Five for the Fight, the campaign to eradicate cancer: Mike Maughan. Hey Mike, first time in L.A. for us doing the show. Do you want to tell us some little-known facts about L.A.?
Mike MAUGHAN: So, L.A. is a unique place. It is illegal to drive more than 2,000 sheep down Hollywood Boulevard. A shocking number of people have been arrested for that in the last two centuries. The L.A. coroner’s office has a gift shop — just weird. And while San Francisco probably wants to own it, L.A. is regarded as the birthplace of the internet because the first transmission was sent from U.C.L.A. up to Menlo Park in 1969. Now, unfortunately, this is also the birthplace of the Kardashians and animatronic robots.
DUBNER: Win some, lose some. Mike Maughan, thank you so much. I think it’s time to get started. Our first guest tonight, would you please welcome — he is your mayor: Eric Garcetti.
Eric GARCETTI: Wow. Welcome to the City of Angels. Great to have you guys here.
DUBNER: Mayor Garcetti, we New Yorkers feel that we’ve got a pretty accurate picture of life in California, especially southern California. It’s basically earthquakes, wildfires, and Kardashians. So I’m just curious: is there anything else going on here, generally?
GARCETTI: Well, we are looking into getting an animatronic Kardashian, so the two things will come together soon. But, no, That’s pretty much the full sum of this amazing city. It is a very simple place, but I like to call it sort of an imperfect paradise.
DUBNER: What in your view are the imperfect parts that you are most concerned about?
GARCETTI: I think our biggest challenges are around poverty; housing connected to that especially, homelessness; traffic and transportation. And then I’d say the third thing that we are faced with is trying to figure out how we can take our pluralism and make that work. I think we do a pretty darn good job compared to other places. Los Angeles I like to say, it’s a place where everybody feels like they belong. A lot of people like “diversity” and “inclusion” as words, I think they’re less good. You know, the hometown buffet is diverse. “Inclusion” implies someone’s powerful and is including you. But “belonging” is a great equalizer.
DUBNER: So let’s talk about transportation a bit. Most people from not here, like us, when we think about L.A. — I think of it as a geographically massive place which therefore requires a big dependence on cars, which therefore means a lot of congestion. And then when it comes to public transport we think of slow buses and not many trains. So tell me where that perception is right and wrong and what you’re doing about it.
GARCETTI: Well, we used to have the best public transportation system probably in the country. The red car and the yellow cars. We can go through the conspiracies of whether it was the car companies and the oil companies who killed them off.
DUBNER: Go through those conspiracies.
GARCETTI: Well, okay. Speaking of Roger Rabbit. It’s mostly not true that there was some conspiracy behind it. We’ve always been on the cutting edge of transportation, and freeways actually worked for a long time. It was 20 minutes anywhere. We were building the future, the way people talk about autonomous vehicles now, the way they talked about subways before that. We thought for a while, rail cars are so yesterday, let’s just get rid of all them because cars will be here forever. That led to a problem or two.
But we’re changing that. I mean, we just passed the largest transportation initiative in American history at the local level. We’re going to be building 15 rapid transit lines at once. Today, we’re already the third largest light rail line. But it’s like winning the lottery today in L.A. Like, if you’re lucky enough to live on that line and work over there and it might take you— you’re like, “Wow, I won.” We want to make that more than 5 percent, which is what it is today.
Second, I think we’re solving it by trying to plan better communities. We used to segregate away where we work, where we play, where we live. And now we’re trying to build communities where you can actually walk. And third, we’re on the cutting edge of technology we are saying yes to testing things here whether it is connected cars and autonomous vehicles, whether it’s things like Hyperloop or the Boring Company.
DUBNER: Was that Elon whooping?
GARCETTI: Yeah, that was Elon Musk. If you look under your seats right now there’s actually a free Tesla key for everybody. You’re a winner. You’re a winner.
DUCKWORTH: It’s inspiring to listen to you. But if there is one secular trend that is indisputable when you look at generations of young people who grew up in the ’60s compared to the ’70s, and then on to the millennials, that young people are getting more cynical and less trusting of politicians and political institutions. What is your message to the young people today?
GARCETTI: Well two things. You diagnose it exactly right. I think it’s— I’m going to get fact checked on this, shoot. There’s some polling company that every year polls America’s trust in institutions — there’s 15 different institutions and only three in America are above 50 percent. Police just barely, military, and small businesses. So journalism, way underwater. Not surprisingly, the White House, way underwater. Congress way underwater.
People don’t trust big institutions because we’ve read so many stories of folks letting them down. “Oh I believed in God, but then I read a story about priests. Oh I believed in journalists, and then I came on this podcast.” Stories like that where your faith is just fundamentally challenged. But anyway, my message is that something like politics isn’t something that people — like I own. It’s not about mayors or members of Congress or your president or your governor; it’s about you. You either exercise the power you have, or you cede that to someone else.
And every day at the local level, I have this great brotherhood and sisterhood of mayors both in the United States and globally, who don’t have the option to argue about stuff. We have to address global warming because there’s fires right next to us. We have to deal with inequality because it’s on our streets. So don’t just leave it up to elected leaders, get engaged get involved, and don’t cede the power to Washington before you even exercise it.
DUBNER: Mr. Mayor, I understand that your administration moved L.A.’s city mail to Gmail, making it the first, I guess, major city to have their email in the cloud. Is that true?
DUBNER: Is it also true that you required all city workers to use the same password, which was “awesomemayor12345”?
GARCETTI: Yeah, I mean it’s just the default password, you can change it afterwards. But 92 percent of them haven’t. So, I enjoy reading their emails.
DUBNER: Now, speaking of you knowing so well the data — L.A. was recently acknowledged, I believe, as the best U.S. city at using data to drive governance.
GARCETTI: It’s like being the tallest building in Wichita, but I’ll take it. No, all kidding aside, we’re proud of opening up our data and sharing it with journalists and hackers and people who can use this data. I mean the positive sense of hackers who can come in and do things to empower the city.
DUBNER: Can you tell us something that you learned through the use of administrative data that otherwise — either the identification of a problem or the idea of a solution — that you wouldn’t have known?
GARCETTI: So everybody’s watched Chinatown, the great movie, how we stole water from Owens Valley.
DUBNER: Owens Valley is what — who administers it?
GARCETTI: It’s a number of counties up there that are run by those supervisors, but Los Angeles, the City of Los Angeles — I learned this — our land holdings in Owens Valley are larger than the entire city of L.A. And I realized we need to do something special because of the drought. And I found out, here’s the statistic, that 260 million gallons of water a day was going from our toilets and our sinks to the Hyperion water treatment plant right next to LAX. And we were cleaning it up to no longer be contaminated and then flushing it out to the ocean. And that was about three times the equivalent of the L.A. Aqueduct.
So what William Mulholland had engineered to come to L.A., we could essentially quadruple the amount of water in this town from those two sources by simply recycling 100 percent of that, which we announced two months ago after working on this for a few years we would do, and we will accomplish. But yeah I mean I think literally was one of those moments where if I hadn’t read that number I don’t think I would’ve made that decision and I don’t think we would have done the biggest infrastructure change to our water in a hundred years.
DUCKWORTH: So what were you like when you were 16 years old? What was your social group?
GARCETTI: My social group was theater nerds.
DUCKWORTH: You were a theater nerd.
GARCETTI: Yeah. There’s ten of us here and we all keep in touch. Thanks for coming.
DUCKWORTH: Like stage crew?
GARCETTI: No, I was on the stage. And I was a budding activist, I would say. I mean, I was this weird mix that’s reflective of this city. I’m your average Angelino — I have an Italian last name, I’m half-Mexican, half-Jewish. I was really into human rights, and I found my place in those two things, being in and of the world, trying to pursue human-rights stuff and getting on a stage when you’re scared as — I don’t know, can we swear here?
GARCETTI: Scared as s—.
DUBNER: I mean, it’s your city. You shouldn’t be asking us if you can swear.
GARCETTI: You guys can all swear tonight.
DUBNER: Thanks. Appreciate it. Oh speaking of favors, Luis Guerra, our bandleader, apparently has a few parking tickets.
GARCETTI: Oh, I know. And I thank him for those. Keep on doing it, man. We need that revenue. More firefighters, longer hours at our library. Keep parking.
DUBNER: So let me ask you this. There are roughly half a million Democratic candidates running for president in 2020, one of which is not you. Many of which are less prominent than you, however. So why not? And don’t, please, if you don’t mind, give me the standard answer about loving your current job and wanting to serve out your term. Because we know that that stops no one else.
GARCETTI: I can only speak for myself, but it should. Look, in politics, people live so much of their careers oftentimes in the future that they ignore the present and what they have. And that’s not just for politicians, that’s all of us. We’re always like, “Cool, I got an Apple iPhone 8, when’s 9 coming out?” It is something that we have to discipline ourselves, and I went through it and I thought I had something I still would have something to add to it. But it’s very difficult to be the C.E.O. of a city — and if you have a conscience, not run that city. If a teachers strike, like we had in January, breaks out or an earthquake comes, God forbid. Life’s long and we’ll figure out the future, I would say.
DUBNER: So from what I’ve read, your style of governance seems to be really collaborative as opposed to the command-and-control or shout-and-scream that we see in Washington a lot. If you could sort of magically invoke one change in federal government that would produce more collaboration, or at least less outright intransigence, what would you do?
GARCETTI: So in D.C. we have this repeal-and-replace mentality. As soon as I can get into government I’m gonna just repeal everything that the last folks did and replace it with my philosophy. And we see compromise as some sort of dirty word, and I think that’s really toxic. At the local level, we can’t afford to do that.
You know, we raised the minimum wage here in L.A., but we also reduced our city’s business tax. Think about that for a second. If you’re a Democrat, you’re supposed to raise both of those things. If you’re Republican, you’re supposed to lower both of them. But we know putting more money in the pocket of folks who are gonna spend it on Main Street is good for the economy, as is lowering the city’s business tax that we have based on gross receipts, which is anti-business.
So if I could change one thing in Washington this is totally radical but I would maybe get rid of political parties altogether. I think our founders envisioned factions, not parties, and it’s the most destructive thing we have right now.
DUBNER: Yeah. Sign me up for that. So let me just ask you — this is an even less palatable idea to most people than yours. But even if the people going in have the best intentions — which I truly believe they often do, they want to serve the public good — that once you get into the system your incentives change, that rather than long-termism, which we want for policy, you get involved in a lot of short-termism, in terms of consolidating power and getting re-elected. So, from an economic perspective, I could see perhaps aligning incentives better by, let’s say, rewarding elected officials financially by setting up some revenue-share that pays off over the long term if the projects that they work on actually work out.
GARCETTI: Here’s a way that you could sell that. Instead of talking about redistribution, talk about the idea of pre-distribution. The idea is sovereign-wealth funds. So maybe it’s not a reward for the politician or the elected official but for all of us in which I would have a stake too. That if we are able to do something that has some payoff, we put 20 percent of that into some public good.
But it’s not just a check that’s after the fact. It would say we’d go back to state universities having free tuition. Not just something that we figure out afterwards by taking more money from the super wealthy or from corporations, but actually something that’s an investment at the front end. So then I would have an incentive.
Because I do think it’s a caricature that people who are elected get more and more disconnected. I mean, we pursued the Olympics and won the Olympics and Paralympics for 2028. And people are like, “Oh well, you don’t care about the Olympics, you’re not going to even be mayor then if there’s cost overruns.” And I say, “No, I’m going to be worse than a mayor. I’m going to be a taxpayer living here in Los Angeles.”
DUBNER: Most economists argue that when cities or regions go for a big public event like the Olympics or conventions, World Cup and so on, that usually, fiscally, it turns out not to be good for the city. I know L.A. has successfully done the Olympics before. Obviously you think it can work well here again. Why? Why is L.A. different — is it because of the existence of the infrastructure?
GARCETTI: It’s our infrastructure, and the way we do the Olympics. So we’ve had it twice before. In 1932, we turned a million-dollar profit. In 1984, we introduced a whole new model with sponsorship and kind of saved the Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Committee was broke, and we made hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s the infrastructure. And people do things like build a new railway to Sochi. Well that’s not the Olympics. That was a $50 billion or whatever it was railway that people put into the Olympics as if that’s an inherent cost of the Olympics—
DUBNER: It’s a boondoggle. And you’re getting your boondoggles in early now so they can—
GARCETTI: Better, better than that. We delayed until 2028, let Paris go first in 2024 and we negotiated $160 million up front. So $16 million a year has been going into doubling the number of kids who get swim classes. And African-American, Latino kids, over half of them don’t know how to swim and it’s the second-leading accidental killer of kids under 12. So we are putting into public good now.
And the main reasons why L.A. can get away with it and other places are right to avoid it is we’re not building an Olympic village, we’re using U.C.L.A., so we’re just renting those rooms. We’ve got all the infrastructure, the most expensive stadium in human history has been built without public subsidy in Inglewood here for the Rams and the Chargers, we’re going to use that. We have the Coliseum, we have the Staples Center, so we’re just renting the incredible sports facilities we already have here. We have a velodrome, we’ve got tennis courts. So, most other cities are smart to not bid, but we hope to get the Olympics to chill out on needing to build so many new things.
DUBNER: So the moral of the story is the Olympics should only be held in Los Angeles.
DUBNER: There’s one question I want to ask you, and we ask this to a lot of substantial people: What’s something that you believed for a long time to be true until you found out that you were wrong?
GARCETTI: Well, I mentioned it a bit already. I think that I was one of those Democrats who always thought you can never lower taxes. And I think that I’ve seen in practice that businesses do make their decisions based on what their taxes are. That’s definitely one.
I think the other thing— I used to think you could dismiss people’s fears, and let’s say in a town hall meeting where people don’t want a homeless shelter in their neighborhood, that it was okay to just say, “You’re wrong,” or that somebody is racist about something, or this, that, and the other. And I realized over time you have to understand people’s fears, that they usually come from a real place, and until you understand that, you can’t transform it.
DUBNER: Mike Maughan, the mayor told us a lot of things about Los Angeles. Any facts we need to be concerned with?
MAUGHAN: So a couple of things that are interesting. He was rated one of the top five most dateable mayors in America, despite the fact that he’s married to the incredible Amy Wakeland.
GARCETTI: Thank you. I was going to say, I’m not dateable at all.
MAUGHAN: I did want to say one one thing about diversity which was interesting. There is a large study that just came out that ranks L.A. itself, not greater Los Angeles, as the 63rd most diverse city in terms of racial and ethnic diversity. It moves up to the eighth most diverse city when you take into account income, education, language, industry, class, age, religion. etc.
The most interesting thing I think you talked about was how hometown buffets also have diversity. You’ll be interested to know that in Canada, some buffets offer jellied moose nose. In Japan, you can get tuna eyeballs. But most impressive was a man in Springfield, Massachusetts, who ate all the diversity and was kicked out of a buffet after spending more than seven hours on site eating more than 50 pounds of food. So it is possible to get all the diversity at once.
DUBNER: Thank you Mike Maughan, and thanks especially to Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles. Our next guest is a seismologist at Caltech, and she’s a leading authority on earthquake risk. Would you please welcome Lucy Jones. It was so interesting to me that people clapped for earthquakes. So tell us something we don’t know about earthquakes, let’s start there.
Lucy JONES: I think most people think of California as a place with a lot of earthquakes. The reality is we don’t have enough. Now maybe that’s only something a seismologist is going to say, but we can look at the geology and see how many we should have, and especially the last couple of decades have been particularly quiet. We call it an earthquake drought, and the only downside of it is it leads to complacency. People think that this is what we have to be ready for and we need to remember that in the long run we get more.
DUBNER: Very interesting. So for 20 years, that timescale is probably just not significant when you’re thinking earthquakes, yes?
JONES: On the larger ones. That’s right. And actually if you want to see some really interesting debates, watch geologists try to do statistics. A lot of us struggle on how to do it correctly and we argue over it. But if you go to small enough earthquakes then you have a lot of them and it’s statistically significant that the last 20 years is quite a bit quieter than the previous century.
DUBNER: So quick two-part question. I want you to tell us about earthquake prediction and how it’s changed over recent decades. And then related to that, what can you tell us about the probability of a big bad earthquake, let’s say in California in the next let’s say 10, 20, and 50 years?
JONES: Okay. I’ll start with the last one and just say, the big earthquake on the San Andreas 7.8, 8, something like that, is absolutely inevitable. Just give me enough time.
DUBNER: Enough time, we’re talking decades, centuries, what?
JONES: Well all right. So we average 150 years—
DUBNER: Can I just say, you sound a little too excited about the probability.
JONES: I don’t get to create my own experiments I have to wait for what the earth is going to give me. And I came in here in my first decade, we had a lot of earthquakes. We had Whittier Narrows, we had Northridge, we had Loma Prieta, and then for the next 25 years at the end of my career, nothing. I miss them. But I realize that not everybody else does.
The problem is that the pattern really is random. I can give you a rate. I can do the earthquake climate if you will. But what we don’t have is the particular storm. You know when the rain’s coming in tonight and my iPhone says there’s a 50 percent chance of rain starting at 11:00, that’s because they can measure the clouds coming in. There’s nothing that has to come in for the earthquake to happen, or if there is, it happens for every earthquake and there’s — there’s an average an earthquake once every three minutes in Southern California.
DUCKWORTH: So what do you mean that it’s random? Do you really mean that it’s random?
JONES: Yeah, statistically as far as we can tell it really is random. Now you think, okay, we’re building up the stress on the fault. The earthquakes should happen when the stress is built up. The problem is that the earthquakes actually happen at stresses much smaller than the breaking strength of the fault, and it’s like if it goes unstable then we go into a different mode, and dynamic friction is much weaker than static friction. And so the timing is controlled by when you happen to get a little break just somewhere on the fault and it goes unstable. We aren’t actually building up to the full strength of the fault.
DUCKWORTH: So does that mean there will never be a time where we can really predict earthquakes?
JONES: I believe we will never predict earthquakes. Now notice my qualifier, I’m a scientist, I don’t say absolutes. The fundamental is: do magnitude ones and magnitude sevens begin in exactly the same way? If they do, there’s nothing to predict. You don’t want me to predict the ones. And as far as we can tell at this point, the ones and the sevens start in the same way.
DUBNER: I know you’re excited for the next big earthquake because it’ll keep you busy, which is not a bad reason to want an earthquake. But most people I would say would probably rather not have a big earthquake for obvious reasons: loss of life and damage and on and on. So let’s talk a little bit about, I guess what you’d call earthquake risk management. Tell us one smart thing and one dumb thing that California has done to manage earthquake risk.
JONES: So the really smart thing that Mayor Garcetti did is listen to me. He invited me to City Hall. We had a long discussion. We ended up creating a cooperative project where the U.S. Geological Survey, who was my employer at the time, put me in City Hall and together we created the resilience plan. The two biggest things generally — we know which are the bad buildings that are going to fall down, and we have mandated repairs. The owners have to spend the money to fix those buildings, so they don’t kill people.
DUBNER: What kind of money are we talking about for retrofitting?
JONES: Billions. I mean there’s about 15,000 buildings involved.
DUBNER: And it’s paid by the owners, right?
JONES: And if it’s a rent-controlled apartment, then it’s split 50/50 with the tenants, but they’re not allowed to put the whole cost onto the tenants. The concrete or commercial buildings, the owner pays for it and he can change his rent as needed or he can choose to tear it down.
DUCKWORTH: Can I ask, you said that the seven is inevitable? Like Superman, the first movie — I mean what does this look like?
JONES: I actually watched that movie with a class of geologists. We got thrown out of the theater. We can look at the geology, and Los Angeles is moving to San Francisco. In just five million years we will be a suburb of San Francisco. And that is inevitable. And it’s not going to be stopped. Plate tectonics goes on. The question is, are we going to take the next step in it tonight or next year or 50 years from now.
DUCKWORTH: And these policies that are building the right infrastructures, do these apply to seven-level earthquakes?
JONES: Absolutely. We do pretty well in a magnitude six. All right. We have had sixes that don’t kill people. So we are gradually building it up. I mean it’s all a relative thing. We absolutely could have a city resilient to it. We can’t stop all damage. We could do a better job with our water system and all that. That Los Angeles Aqueduct he was talking about, it crosses the San Andreas fault in a wooden tunnel built in 1908. And the tunnel is nine feet in diameter and the expected fault offset will be 12 feet, so it won’t exist after the earthquake.
DUBNER: Okay, Mr. Awesome Mayor, what have you done about that?
JONES: They are planning the engineering solution now.
DUBNER: S—. How much greater is the risk of dying in an earthquake in California versus, let’s say New York?
JONES: Not much. We have a lot more earthquakes, but you have a lot worse buildings. There was a study that said what’s the expected money to be lost in the different urban areas. Los Angeles is No. 1, San Francisco’s No. 2, Seattle’s No. 3, and New York is No. 4.
DUBNER: I understand that earthquake insurance is not required in California and that roughly just 15 percent of property owners have it. Should it be required?
JONES: Oh, that’s a different policy question than science, but it is going to hurt our economy very badly. You can look at what happened to San Francisco in 1906. It was the only city that mattered on the West Coast in 1905. That earthquake happened and essentially destroyed the whole city. The next decade is the biggest growth decade in the history of Los Angeles. People gave up on San Francisco and came south. Their economy went down for decades, and you can argue that San Francisco never regained its position.
DUBNER: Mike Maughan, Lucy Jones says the big one is coming, and she can’t wait. Did you turn up any facts that are worth revisiting?
MAUGHAN: There is in theory this sliver of land between the fault in the ocean where that will break off and then L.A. would slide past San Francisco, so that’s a real thing. I’d bet on that.
JONES: In five billion years.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, well sure. But what’s time? On a positive note, earthquakes are the only natural disaster not affected by climate change. Lucky us. A few things to add: we are in this earthquake drought. We’re also in a drought of moral leadership, human intelligence, and good Nicolas Cage movies.
DUBNER: Mike, thank you and Lucy Jones, thank you so much for joining us.
* * *
DUBNER: Welcome back to Freakonomics Radio Live. My co-host is Angela Duckworth. Our live fact checker is Mike Maughan and we’ve got live music tonight from the Freakonomics Radio Orchestra, which includes composer and bassist Luis Guerra; on drums, Mike Longoria; on guitar, Jimmy Messer; on horns and strings, Dan Weinstein; and on keys and good vibes, Kahlil Sabbagh.
Our next guest is executive director of the Port of Los Angeles: Gene Seroka. Gene, I understand the Port of L.A. is the biggest container port in the U.S., bringing in about 37 percent of imports. Is that about right, for starters?
Gene SEROKA: Combined with Long Beach, we bring in 37 percent, but we account for about a fifth of all the traffic that moves in the United States.
DUBNER: Okay, so I’d love you to tell us something we don’t know about the Port of L.A. and us being neither port people nor L.A. people, that could be pretty much anything.
SEROKA: One of our biggest exports is air.
SEROKA: Empty containers.
DUBNER: Oh, is this about China?
SEROKA: We’re pretty dependent as a nation on imports. So we’ve got a balance of about two imports to every one export, and the balance of those containers we work around the clock to get back to Asia so they can get the next round of imports.
DUBNER: So this is containers deadheading their way back to China to fill up to send us more stuff.
SEROKA: That’s exactly it.
DUBNER: Gotcha. Okay, so what are the mechanics, let’s say, and logistics and costs of shipping full stuff vs. air.
SEROKA: Well if you’re shipping a lot of air you’re losing money. So you want to make sure you have round-trip economics, bringing imports in and exports out. And even if you have to overreach and get a little more market share in an area that you may not have the relative strength in.
DUBNER: I am curious about the empty versus full ships. How has that ratio changed over the last whatever, five or 10 years?
SEROKA: It’s remained pretty consistent. We as a country have outsourced our manufacturing since the late ’70s, early ’80s, and us as consumers want to go find the product as quickly as we can, and we’re going to keep doing that because the price points are so great. But what we’ve seen is that right now, the largest export from the United States to Asia is waste paper.
DUBNER: I thought that was changing — that China is accepting much less waste from us for recycling.
SEROKA: Yeah, the Green Fence Policy, this predated all the debates that are happening between Washington and Beijing today. But the idea is exactly as you said, Stephen, to try to clean up the waste products that we ship back to China. Now wastepaper goes back, gets refined, and it makes those corrugated boxes that ship our TV’s and our washing machines back here to the U.S.
DUBNER: Big question. We’re in the middle, maybe, of a historic confrontation between the U.S. and China on trade and tariffs. I’m curious to know how this whole political chapter has been affecting business at the port.
SEROKA: The numbers at the port today are at record highs. You look under the hood, it’s a little bit different recently. We’ve seen a lot of imports advanced to get underneath the tariffs or taxation, and we’ve seen a paucity of exports — or really a precipitous drop of exports — because the retaliatory tariffs and the fact that those goods aren’t as marketable as they have been in the past.
DUBNER: A drop in the exports because they don’t want the stuff to get there with the uncertainty of knowing what the retaliatory tariffs will be, or just because it’s already taken effect here?
SEROKA: A little bit of both.
DUBNER: Yeah. When things are going on in D.C. or Beijing, when there’s disagreements and so on. Your logistics must run on a very, very, very long time frame. And I’m curious to know when the butterfly flaps its wings in one of those places, how long it takes to get to you.
SEROKA: Yeah. Realistically speaking, it takes about six months of thought that goes into bringing cargo back here to Los Angeles. So there’s a merchandiser somewhere with a big retailer in the Midwest that says I want to buy 20 million widgets. They put an order into a factory. Those goods are manufactured. They’re put into the supply chain and moved all the way through and get here to L.A. So when you and I decide that we want to go online and buy something and get next-day delivery, all of that has taken about six months of thought beforehand.
DUBNER: I understand that the port caught more than 1,500 kilos of meth that was being smuggled to Australia. So my first question is: Isn’t meth really easy to make and shouldn’t Australians be able to make their own? Was that question not in your purview as a—
SEROKA: No, I wouldn’t claim to be an expert there.
DUBNER: Okay. Let’s talk about contraband generally. I’m curious about port security. So tell us what you’re what you’re willing to about people doing what they shouldn’t be doing with your ships coming in or out.
SEROKA: Yeah. Port security is one of the biggest aspects of what we do on a daily basis. We have one of the nation’s only sworn-in civilian police forces. They work directly with all the allied agencies and imagine, from the F.B.I. to the C.I.A., Secret Service, all kinds of folks, to share intelligence and try to stop the bad guys. There could be anything from getting into our systems to find out where our money is flowing, how bank accounts are used both here and overseas, to get ships to move in the wrong direction and cause havoc. All of the above and much more.
DUBNER: And who’s doing that?
SEROKA: Bad guys.
DUBNER: Mike Maughan, Gene Seroka, who runs the Port of L.A.
SEROKA: America’s port, Stephen.
DUBNER: Oh, America’s port. Gene Seroka has been telling us about the ins and outs of the port. Anything worth calling our attention to?
MAUGHAN: So you mentioned that in January, the port caught a lot of meth that was being smuggled to Australia. The drugs were hidden in metal boxes labeled as loudspeakers. Now to Stephen’s point, making meth apparently isn’t that hard. Don’t worry, I opened an incognito browser to look at this. There are four primary ways to make meth in the U.S., but they have a totally different method that the Mexican cartels use. So it all depends on the flavor you like. Last month, a large Australian newspaper ran a headline that says, “Meth remains our country’s illicit drug of choice!” Exclamation point; they’re very thrilled about it. So there you have it.
DUBNER: Gene Seroka, thank you so much for joining us tonight. It is time now for our final guest. She works at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. And she is specifically with a NASA division called Planetary Protection. Would you please welcome Moogega Stricker. Moogega, welcome.
Moogega STRICKER: Thank you.
DUBNER: It would seem that your division, Planetary Protection, has something to do with fighting off— let’s say potential asteroid strikes that would devastate the earth. Is that true?
STRICKER: That is the actual number-one thing that people usually think. But it is wrong. So what I do is I focus on the microbial scale, and protecting other planets from humans, making sure when we explore other planets, bodies, asteroids, that we don’t contaminate it with life that we find on Earth. Especially if there may be life that exists there.
DUBNER: It is so interesting that we’re more concerned about polluting other planets than ours.
DUCKWORTH: Did we do anything wrong with the previous moon landings?
STRICKER: You know, the astronauts when they came back from the moon, they splashed down in the ocean and if there was something on the outside of the container that really could harm humans, we would have been dead right there at splashdown.
DUCKWORTH: But what do you do, though? Like, you can’t go through a car wash on your way back down from space.
STRICKER: What you need to do when you bring something back —humans back or samples back — you need to do a lot of great creative engineering to have capsules within capsules or a sterilization device so that you can prevent anything bad to come back to Earth.
DUBNER: So is this mostly about Mars 2020, what you’re working on?
STRICKER: Yeah, so my job is specifically focused on Mars. Mars 2020 is going to go to the surface of Mars, collect samples, and for the very first time, package them in a way that they can come back to Earth. We’ve never had a sample return mission from Mars.
DUBNER: Okay, so let me ask you this. You don’t sound like a very excited person, I have to say — but what would really, really super-duper excite you about Mars and getting stuff back?
STRICKER: Yeah. The most exciting and ultimate goal is, we’re searching for life. And to be able to find signs of life and actually definitively find a smoking gun, that would be just an exciting dream come true, because it would answer the question: Are we alone in the universe?
DUBNER: So what do you actually do in your job?
STRICKER: So a day in my life would be sitting in a very small room with a bunch of engineers, scientists, and say, “Okay we’re going to plug in the face of the rover onto the body of the rover,” and before we do that, planetary protection, do you need to sample the hardware? So we would go in with our sterile swabs, our wipes, and we would actually scrub or swab the actual surface and go to the lab and see what microbes are present on this component.
DUBNER: What do you think about the microbes that you may encounter elsewhere? And what are the either dangers or potentially benefits of those?
STRICKER: So part two of my job, planetary protection, is when we bring samples back, we have to make sure that it doesn’t harm humans.
DUCKWORTH: So how do you do that? How can you tell?
STRICKER: So one method that was actually done is — for the moon rocks — is feeding it to chickens. I’m not sure why they selected chickens but it’s just one of those tests. How do you prove that you’re not going to kill anybody?
DUCKWORTH: So I imagine that this is such a specific career that not a lot of girls and boys think that they’re going to grow up to be part of the planetary protection lead for Mars. So how did you end up here?
STRICKER: I actually didn’t know planetary protection existed until I was working on my Ph.D. So I was working on plasma sterilizations and they had a project that used plasma to sterilize spacecraft surfaces. Because it’s really tough. You can imagine when you’re innovating these new materials and new spacecraft, a lot of these aren’t capable of going through high-temperature heat sterilization processes. So they need other alternative methods. Plasma was one of those alternatives. So as an undergrad I studied physics, and before that I was just the little kid that watched Carl Sagan‘s The Cosmos and that really put me on the trajectory of, I want to be an astrophysicist, this is what I want to do. And instead of playing in the summertime, I would take classes. Started college at 16 and I’m just like this is what I want to do. So, get out of my way.
DUBNER: So can I ask you, though, just to be clear, there are some people at NASA who are protecting us from the asteroids?
STRICKER: Yes. Don’t worry, they exist. They’re doing their things.
DUBNER: Can you give me some detail on that, when you say they’re doing their things. And also you’re called Planetary Protection. Which I find to be a very misleading title, I’m not going to lie to you. So what are what are they called?
STRICKER: They’re called Planetary Defense.
DUBNER: Yeah. All right.
STRICKER: Because they’re defending against the asteroids, the impacts.
DUBNER: So let me ask you this. When you find microbes — whether in your lab or maybe somewhere where a spacecraft is being assembled, whatever, and you try to identify the microbes, do you ever find something that hadn’t been previously identified?
STRICKER: Yeah, it’s really great. So the old-school days, back when Planetary Protection started, it was very culture-based. That means we would take a sample. We would grow it up in the lab and based on whatever grew, we would identify it. And now that we’ve fast forwarded to DNA-based analysis, we’ve seen so much more. If you look at the soil, 0.1 percent of microbes in the soil are even able to be grown in a lab. So it’s just a tiny sliver what exists. So yeah, we discover so many new things there are actually hundreds of new species that were discovered just in our assessment in this spacecraft assembly facility.
DUBNER: No kidding.
STRICKER: Over a hundred.
DUBNER: And then, once you make that discovery, do you try to find it elsewhere on the earth?
STRICKER: Yeah. That’s the beauty of DNA sequencing and databases that are accessible worldwide. There was one microorganism we found in our clean room and the same type popped up in some lake or a cave in China. So we’re 23andMe-ing all of the bacteria that exists around the world.
DUBNER: And what does linking that information actually get you? How does it advance the science, or what does that enable you to do that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible?
STRICKER: So for example, a lot of the medical-devices industry, when you go in and you get a colonoscopy or an endoscopy, and you want to make sure that they clean it off and everything is kept nice. We discovered that in the process of sterilizing these devices, they use something called a biological indicator. This is the hardiest, strongest champion of microbes that if we kill that, we’ve killed everything else. And so this biological indicator has changed over time because we’ve discovered these new microbes. And in our clean room, we’ve discovered a microbe that knocked off that biological indicator, that gold standard.
DUBNER: So I’ve read that you once appeared on a reality TV show called King of the Nerds. This is true?
STRICKER: You have a really great researchers.
DUBNER: And we’ve also read that part of the competition was to compose and perform a nerd anthem, and that your anthem was called “Nerds are King.” Is this all true?
DUBNER: So I believe that our band has found “Nerds are King” online, and they’re willing to back you up if you are willing to sing it. Are you good with that?
STRICKER: That sounds great.
Singing: You call me a nerd like it’s a bad thing, but the world is our kingdom, and nerds are king. Representing for the geeks who get put down. Nerds are the new cool and we run this town.
DUBNER: Mike Maughan, fact-check that.
MAUGHAN: That was good. Okay, so, I think the most interesting thing I found was just the way to apply for a job in Planetary Protection. Under job qualification it lists the following things: frequent travel, it doesn’t mention that it’s to Jupiter and Saturn. There are only three technical qualifications that you need: one is advanced knowledge of planetary protection; two, demonstrated experience planning, executing and overseeing elements of space programs of national significance; three, demonstrated skills in diplomacy, probably because you never know when you have to negotiate with aliens.
DUBNER: Thank you so much, Moogega Stricker. That was just great, thank you, and could we please have one more round of applause for all our guests tonight. It is time now for our live audience to tell us who their favorite guest was tonight. Maybe it’s the guest that you would most like to hear from in a future studio episode of Freakonomics Radio. Let’s remember the criteria: Did they tell you something you did not know? Was it truly worth knowing? And was it demonstrably true? So who’s it going to be?
- Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles,
- Lucy Jones, who both calmed and frightened us with her earthquake expertise,
- Gene Seroka, who runs the Port of L.A., America’s port, or
- Moogega Stricker, who helps protect various planets from various microbes and also composes anthems to nerds.
Okay, the audience vote is in. Once again, thank you so much to all our guests presenters. And our grand-prize winner tonight for telling us about planetary protection, Moogega Stricker. Congratulations. Moogega, to commemorate your victory we’d like to present you with this Certificate of Impressive Knowledge. It reads, “I, Stephen Dubner, in consultation with the great Angela Duckworth and Mike Maughan, do hereby attest that Moogega Stricker told us something we did not know for which we are so grateful.” And that’s our show for tonight. I hope we told you something you did not know. Huge thanks to Mike and Angela, to our guests, to Luis Guerra and the great Freakonomics Radio Orchestra. Thanks especially to all of you for listening this week and every week to Freakonomics Radio. Good night.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. Our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, Matt Hickey, and Corinne Wallace; we had help this week from Morgan Levey and Dan Dzula. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
There are a lot of barriers to changing your mind: ego, overconfidence, inertia — and cost. Politicians who flip-flop get mocked; family and friends who cross tribal borders are shunned. But shouldn’t we be encouraging people to change their minds? And how can we get better at it ourselves?
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
* * *
Here’s a riddle: name an activity that you probably don’t enjoy but may still spend 8 or 10 hours a week doing. Something you are compelled to do. By people who probably also don’t like doing this thing. Give up? I’m talking about meetings. When’s the last time you heard someone say, “That was an awesome meeting, a great use of time and full of pertinent information”? I’m guessing the answer is: never. So, for an upcoming episode on the science of meetings, we want to hear from you. Tell us about the worst meeting you ever attended, or maybe the worst meeting you ever ran. Or the best meeting. With lots of details, please. Also: your ideas for making meetings better. Make a brief audio recording — just use whatever voice-memo app is on your phone — and email the file to email@example.com, with the subject line “meetings.” Please be sure to tell us your name, what you do, and where you’re from. Thanks.
* * *
Here’s an interesting fact: legislators in several Republican-controlled states are pushing to eliminate the death penalty. Why is that interesting? Because most Republicans have typically been in favor of the death penalty. They’ve said it’s a deterrent against the most horrific crimes and a fitting penalty when such crimes do occur. But a lot of Republicans have come to believe the death penalty does not deter crime — which happens to be an argument we offered evidence for in Freakonomics. They also say the lengthy legal appeals on death-penalty cases are too costly for taxpayers. Some Republicans also cite moral concerns with the death penalty. And so: a lot of them have changed their minds.We’ve all changed our minds at some point, about something. Maybe you were a cat person and became a dog person. Maybe you decided the place you lived, or the person you loved, or the religion you followed — that they weren’t working for you any more. But changing your mind is rarely easy; and it’s not something you set out to do. Although if you’re like most people, you would very much like other people to change their minds. To think more like you. Because as you see it, it’s impossible for the world to progress, to improve, unless some people are willing to change their minds. But like I said, it won’t be easy. Because changing your mind means admitting, on some level, that you used to be wrong. It can be seen as an act of weakness, even heresy.
* * *
Stephen J. DUBNER: Tell me something that you believed to be true for a long time until you found out you were wrong.
Robert SAPOLSKY: The list is endless. I used to be a very serious pianist, and I was one of the snot-nosed classical ones who was appalled by nightmares of Ethel Merman and trombones blasting in the background and who knows what else. And then the wonderful person I married turned out to be a musical-theater fanatic. And in fact, my wife is a musical-theater director.
DUBNER: So it wasn’t just a case of you accommodating out of love and familial attachment. Your actual preferences changed?
SAPOLSKY: Oh, I thrill at the excitement of seeing a bunch of barely-remembering-their-lines high-school students stumbling their way through Music Man or — actually, that’s not true, I still loathe Music Man. But I actually have come to like musicals a whole lot. She and I have done 19 of them now together, she’s directed I’ve been sort of the rehearsal pianist.
DUBNER: Oh boy, you really went — you crossed the border then, fully.
SAPOLSKY: Yes. Yes.
Who is this guy, and why should we care that he’s changed his mind?
SAPOLSKY: I’m Robert Sapolsky. I’m a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University, and I’m kind of half-neurobiologist, half-primatologist. For about 30 years, I’ve divided my time between your basic rat-lab neurons growing in petri dishes and then studying populations of wild baboons in the Serengeti in East Africa.
DUBNER: So considering that I’m not a neuroscientist — in fact, pretty much as far from it as could be — I do have a sense that the brain and the mind may be two separate things, but I’d love you to comment on the relationship between the two.
SAPOLSKY: I am completely of the school that mind is entirely the manifestation of brain. So when there’s a change in mind, there’s got to be a neurobiological underpinning.
Sapolsky, as he noted earlier, has changed his own mind quite a lot. He started early.
SAPOLSKY: I was raised as an Orthodox Jew in a major neighborhood specializing in that, in Brooklyn. And somewhere when I was about 14, something changed. And that change probably involved updating every molecule in my body, in that I sort of realized: this is nonsense, there’s no God, there’s no free will, there is no purpose. And I have not been capable of a shred of religiosity or spirituality ever since.
DUBNER: And was there a familial schism then?
SAPOLSKY: Oh, I was one of those terribly nerdy, scholarly, passive- aggressive kids where I never said a word about it to my highly religious and demanding father. And he went to his grave having no idea.
DUBNER: No kidding. How old were you when he died?
SAPOLSKY: In my thirties.
DUBNER: So had you come home and gone to Yom Kippur with him and faked it, or how did that work?
SAPOLSKY: Yeah. Yeah. And not just for the High Holy Days. I’m home for three days visiting and he’s not going to change, he doesn’t need this sort of headache or heartache at this point, so whatever. It just would have been very hurtful to someone of enormous importance to me.
One thing Sapolsky noticed about mind-changing is that it’s easier when you’re younger.
SAPOLSKY: Just noticing the general phenomenon that we get less open to novelty as we get older.
So he worked up a survey to look at people’s preferences in food, music, and so on.
SAPOLSKY: What you wind up seeing is basically if you are not listening to a certain style of music by the time you’re 28 or so, 95 percent chance you’re never going to. By age 35, if you’re not eating sushi, 95 percent chance you never will. In other words, these windows of openness to novelty close. But then as a biologist, the thing that floored me is, you take a lab rat and you look at when in its life it’s willing to try a novel type of food — and it’s the exact same curve! The equivalent of 10-year-old lab rats hate broccoli as much as 10-year-old humans do. And late adolescence, early adulthood, there’s this sudden craving for novelty. And that’s when primates pick up and leave their home troops and transfer into new ones. And then by the time you’re a middle-aged adult rat, you’re never going to try anything new for the rest of your life. It’s the exact same curve, which fascinated me.
DUBNER: Did it make you say, “My goodness, I’m biologically programmed to never want to try any new music, food, experience again, and therefore I’m going to push through that.” Or did you accept your fate?
SAPOLSKY: It had no impact on me whatsoever. I’m one of those scientist-professor types who’s capable of lecturing on a subject and paying no attention to what I’m saying. Like I’ve spent my whole life studying about the adverse effects of stress on your health and your psyche. And I’m the most frazzled, stressed person around. I’ve gleaned absolutely nothing useful from any of my life work.
There are a lot of reasons why it may be easier to change your mind when you’re younger. It could be the fact that your brain is simply more plastic then — something scientists assumed for a long time but now are starting to question. Or it could be that your positions are less entrenched, so it’s less costly to change them. Or it could be that the stakes are lower: the fate of the world doesn’t hinge on whether you are pro-broccoli or anti-broccoli. But as life goes on:
VOICEOVER: Now there’s nothing wrong with a little indecision.
As the stakes rise.
VOICEOVER: As long as your job doesn’t involve any responsibility.
Changing your mind can get more costly.
VOICEOVER: John Kerry has changed his mind on all these important issues.
When Massachusetts Senator John Kerry ran for President against the incumbent, George W. Bush, in 2004, Kerry’s campaign began to crater after it was shown that he’d changed his position — or at least his votes in the Senate — on a number of issues.
VOICEOVER: If you thought you could trust him, you might want to change your mind too.
Francis FUKUYAMA: So I think that’s the way politics itself works.
That’s Francis Fukuyama. He’s a political scientist at Stanford.
FUKUYAMA: My work really centers on research and practice about political institutions.
In 1992, Fukuyama wrote a book that became a sensation. It was called The End of History and the Last Man.
FUKUYAMA: In the late 1980s, as I was following events in the Soviet Union, I said well, to the extent that there is an end of history, it’s going to look like liberal democracy tied to a market economy.
In other words: democracy had essentially won. Not just the Cold War, but the future. And yet: a lot of the recent political momentum is going in the other direction: toward populism and authoritarianism, with a backlash against globalism.
DUBNER: So to what degree do you think your argument was wrong, or at least premature? How confident are you that what we’re seeing now is just a backlash and not actually a reversal or an entirely new strain?
FUKUYAMA: I am still reasonably confident. You know, the way I have formulated my hypothesis right from the beginning was that you needed to show not just that there was unhappiness with liberal democracy, but you needed to posit some other form of social organization that was superior, or that was somehow going to displace liberal democracy in the way that communism asserted that it would displace liberal democracy ultimately. And if you look around the world right now, there are competing systems that are not liberal or democratic. So the Chinese have one, Saudi Arabia and Iran have their versions of it. But I actually don’t think that any of those alternative models are likely to become universal in the way that liberal democracy has become, in a fairly impressive way, the default form of government for very many countries around the world.
So Fukuyama has not changed his mind about his most famous assertion — although he is open to it.
FUKUYAMA: If in 30 years, China’s bigger than the United States, richer, continues to be stable, continues to be growing faster, then I have to say well, maybe that is the alternative model.
But he did change his mind on something else. It goes back to that Bush-Kerry era, and the Iraq War.
VOICEOVER: In which direction would John Kerry lead? Kerry voted for the Iraq war, opposed it, supported it, and now opposes it again.
At the time, Fukuyama was well-established as a prominent political thinker. In addition to writing a landmark book, he’s done two stints in the State Department. So his views on the Iraq War were taken seriously.
FUKUYAMA: I signed onto a letter a couple of years before the war saying that the United States ought to take military action.
He wasn’t opposed to the U.S. desire to intervene and topple a dictator — in this case, Saddam Hussein.
FUKUYAMA: That’s happened in the past and it’s had good effects.
But as the invasion drew near, Fukuyama did have a concern.
FUKUYAMA: My main concern was whether the United States was ready to actually stay in Iraq and convert it into a stable, decent country. And the United States has not had a really great record in doing this, in Central America and Vietnam and so forth. And in the months prior to the war, I began to get increasingly worried that we weren’t prepared to actually stick it out. But even I was astonished at how bad the planning had been, and how faulty the assumptions were, that we were going to be greeted as liberators and that there would be a rapid transition just like in Eastern Europe to something that looked like democracy. In retrospect, I wish I had taken a much clearer stand against it before the war actually happened.
The U.S. invaded Iraq in March of 2003.
FUKUYAMA: I was at a dinner at the American Enterprise Institute in February of 2004.
The A.E.I. is a conservative think tank in D.C.
FUKUYAMA: Dick Cheney was the featured speaker and everybody in the room was cheering like this was the biggest success for American foreign policy, that they could imagine. And I just looked around at the people at my table and I said, “Why are these people clapping?” Because clearly this thing is turning into a huge fiasco. And that’s the moment that I decided these people are really nuts. I mean, they’re so invested in seeing this as a success that they can’t see this reality that’s just growing right in front of their eyes. And to this day — I mean it does seem strange to me that a lot of the people that were strong supporters of the war, even today, are not willing to admit that that was a mistake.
DUBNER: The investment that you’re describing, how would you characterize it? Was it more personal, do you think, or more political? Was the thinking more emotional or logical, and using logic to find facts that supported the underlying argument?
FUKUYAMA: Well, it’s both. I mean, there has been a lot of research in social psychology lately. Like, this model where people just take facts and draw conclusions from them and then base their opinions on that is completely wrong. I mean that’s just not the way people think. They start out with an emotional commitment to a certain idea, and then they use their formidable cognitive powers to organize facts to support what they want to believe anyhow. So the partisan affiliation comes first and then the reasoning process by which you justify it comes second. And unfortunately, affects all of us. We tend to see the world and cherry-pick facts that support our version of the world, and it takes a really big external shock that just clearly proves you wrong.
DUBNER: So I understand that even though you were seen as having defected from or abandoned the neoconservative movement, primarily over the Iraq war, that you were not met so warmly by the left, where you moved to. You said in 2006, “I’ve gotten many e-mails that said in effect, well you’re trying to apologize but you’ve got blood on your hands. We don’t accept your apology.”
FUKUYAMA: Yeah, it’s interesting, you’re seeing a similar process with a lot of other neocons right now. The neocons as a group have been the core of the never-Trump conservative movement, all of whom had been big supporters of the Iraq war and of George W. Bush, have really turned against Trump in a big way. And there are a lot of people that are not willing to accept them, they say, “It’s too late.” Exactly those words, “You have blood on your hands.” And I think that that is an unduly rigid position. Because in that case, no one should ever change their mind. They should never be hit on the head with reality and then realize that they’ve got a different position that they should take.
When we talk about changing your mind, we need to acknowledge that every situation is, of course, different. Let’s say someone in your family holds a position that you find odious. Why do you find it odious? Maybe you think they’re ignoring the facts. But can’t people hold different positions based on the same facts? Maybe you feel their position lacks moral reasoning. But who said morality is one-size fits all? Or maybe — just maybe — they hold the opposite position simply because it is the opposite.
Julia SHVETS: Suppose a person has some idea about something which doesn’t correspond to reality. It may be that they derive pleasure from having this idea in itself.
That’s Julia Shvets. She’s an economist at Christ’s College, Cambridge.
SHVETS: I study people’s decisions empirically in order to understand better what drives people.
And in the case of someone deriving pleasure from an idea that you disagree with:
SHVETS: In that case, you have to ask yourself whether it’s actually to their benefit for them to be changing their mind.
This idea, that we can be so invested in our beliefs even if we suspect they are wrong — Shvets has found evidence of this in her research.
SHVETS: The incorrect vision of the world may actually deliver some benefits to them.
And she’s found this effect not just in models or lab studies but out in the real world, where people are constantly making decisions about their work, their families, their lives.
SHVETS: It seems to be a very important question whether the beliefs we hold about the outside world are somehow connected to these beliefs about ourselves. When there is a link between these beliefs, it’s not so clear that we should be changing our minds, and what are the costs and benefits of this.
Consider, for instance, an expert who has dedicated their career to a certain policy or line of thinking. What happens in the face of new information? Do you seriously reconsider your long-held position, and go against the tide you’ve been swimming in?
FUKUYAMA: A lot of times you just feel uncomfortable if you say things that disrupt a consensus. And you just don’t want to do it.
Francis Fukuyama is recalling his change of mind on the Iraq war.
FUKUYAMA: A lot of my friends were very, very heavily on the other side. And I lost a lot of them, I haven’t spoken to several of these friends since then.
SHVETS: There are two separate questions, whether the person should change their mind and what the effects are for him, and then what the effects are of this for other people.
There’s another factor that Julia Shvets sees as contributing to our reluctance to change our mind: confidence. Or, more accurately, overconfidence — our own belief that we are right, even in the absence of evidence. Just how much unearned confidence is floating around out there? Consider a recent study by Shvets and some colleagues that surveyed over 200 managers at a British restaurant chain. They averaged more than two years on the job and their compensation was strongly tied to a performance bonus. I mention the bonus because it’s related to the survey that Shvets administered.The managers were asked to recall their past performance and to predict their future performance. Presumably, they should have had a pretty good grasp of their standing.
SHVETS: What we found is that only about 35 percent of managers were accurate about the quintile of the performance distribution they were falling into.
In other words:barely a third of them were able to correctly say whether they fell in the top 20 percent of all managers, or the bottom 20 percent, or another 20-percent block somewhere in the middle.
SHVETS: And 47 percent of managers were overconfident about it.
And these were people who had detailed feedback about their performance every quarter. Which is a lot more than most employees get.
SHVETS: So the next question we asked is: how is it possible that people remain so overconfident when they have so much information?
This is where memory comes into play, or maybe you’d call it optimism — or delusion.
SHVETS: People who did worse in the previous competition tended to remember slightly better outcomes. People seem to be exaggerating their own past performance in their head when this performance is bad. So what we conclude from this is that people use memory selectively. They remember good outcomes and they tend to forget bad ones.
So maybe it’s not so much that people refuse to change their minds — or refuse to “update their priors,” as economists like to say. Maybe they just have self-enhancing selective memories.
SHVETS: The data we observe are consistent with them making a choice to suppress some past information.
But there’s also the possibility that people who’ve been at something for a while, who may consider themselves expert, simply don’t believe that non-experts have information worth paying attention to.
FUKUYAMA: So I was in the State Department, in the policy planning staff, in 1989.
Francis Fukuyama again.
FUKUYAMA: And in May of 1989, after there had been this turmoil in Hungary and Poland, I drafted a memo to my boss, Dennis Ross, who was the director of the office that sent it on to Jim Baker, who was the Secretary of State, saying we ought to start thinking about German unification, because it didn’t make sense to me that you could have all this turmoil right around East Germany and East Germany not being affected. The German experts in the State Department went ballistic at this. You know, they said, “This is never going to happen. And this was said at the end of October. The Berlin wall fell on November 11th. And so I think that the people that were the closest to this situation — so I was not a German expert at all but it just seemed to me logical. But I think it’s true that if you are an expert, you really do have a big investment in seeing the world in a certain way, whereas if you’re an amateur like me you can say whatever you think.
As you can see, there are a lot of reasons why a given person might be reluctant to change their mind about a given thing. Ego, selective memory, overconfidence, the cost of losing family or friends. But let’s say you remain committed to changing minds — your own or someone else’s. How do you get that done? The secret may lie not in a grand theoretical framework, but in small, mundane objects:
SLOMAN: Toilets and zippers and ballpoint pens.
* * *
Think of something you have a really strong opinion about. Maybe the best ways to address climate change. The perils of income inequality. How to balance privacy and security. Now think about why you have such a strong opinion. How well do you think could you explain your position?
Steven SLOMAN: If you’re forced to give an explanation, you have to really understand, and you have to confront the fact that you might not understand. Whereas when you give reasons, then you do what people do around the Thanksgiving dinner table. They talk about their feelings about it, what they like, what they don’t like.
That’s Steven Sloman.
SLOMAN: I’m a professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University.
DUBNER: And that means, in a nutshell, that you try to understand what?
SLOMAN: I try to understand how people think.
DUBNER: Easy question first: How do you get someone to change their mind?
SLOMAN: Well, first of all, there’s no silver bullet. It’s really hard. But if you’re going to try, the first thing you should do is try to get them to change their own minds. And you do that by simply asking them to assume your perspective and explain why you might be right. If you can get people to step outside themselves and think about the issue — not even necessarily from your perspective, but from an objective perspective, from one that is detached from their own interests — people learn a lot. So, given how hard it is for people to assume other people’s perspectives, you can see why I started my answer by saying it’s very hard.
One experiment Sloman has done is asking people to explain — not reason, as he pointed out, but to actually explain, at the nuts-and-bolts level — how something works.
SLOMAN: People don’t really like to engage in the kind of mechanistic analysis required for a causal explanation.
That’s true not only for big, thorny issues like climate change or income inequality, but even for things like:
SLOMAN: Toilets and zippers and ballpoint pens.
Unless you are a plumber or you make zippers or ballpoint pens, you probably can’t explain these very well. Even though, before you were asked the question, you would have thought you could. This gap, between what you know and what you think you know is called, naturally, the “illusion of explanatory depth.”
SLOMAN: So, the illusion of explanatory depth was first demonstrated by a couple of psychologists named Rozenblit and Keil. And they asked people how well they understood how these things worked, and people gave a number between 1 and 7. And then they said, “Okay, how does it work? Explain in as much detail as you can how it works.” And people struggled and struggled and realized they couldn’t. And so when they were again asked how well they understood, their judgments tended to be lower. In other words, people themselves admitted that they had been living in this illusion, that they understood how these things worked, when, in fact, they don’t.
Where does this illusion come from?
SLOMAN: We think the source of the illusion is that people fail to distinguish what they know from what others know. We’re constantly depending on other people, and the actual processing that goes on is distributed among people in our community.
In other words, someone knows how a toilet works: the plumber. And you know the plumber; or, even if you don’t know the plumber, you know how to find a plumber.
SLOMAN: It’s as if the sense of understanding is contagious. When other people understand, you feel like you understand.
You can see how the illusion of explanatory depth could be helpful in some scenarios — you don’t need to know everything for yourself, as long as you know someone who knows someone who knows something. But you could also imagine scenarios in which the illusion could be problematic.
SLOMAN: So we’ve shown that that’s also true in the political domain.
Sloman and his collaborator Philip Fernbach basically repeated the Rozenblit and Keil experiment, but instead of toilets and zippers, they asked people about climate change and gun control.
SLOMAN: We gave people political policies. We said, “How well do you understand them?” and “Please explain them.”
Unsurprisingly, most people were not able to explain climate-change policies in much detail. But here’s what’s interesting. The level of confidence in their understanding of issues, which participants were asked to report at the start of the experiment, was drastically reduced after they tried, and failed, to demonstrate their understanding.
SLOMAN: In other words, asking people to explain depolarized the group.
Now, was this a case of simply slowing down and thinking the issue through? Could it be that we’re often inflexible in our thinking simply because we come to conclusions too quickly? Apparently not.
SLOMAN: If instead of saying, “Explain how the policy works,” if what we said to them was, “Give us all the reasons you have for your view on this policy,” then we didn’t get that effect at all. That didn’t reduce people’s sense of understanding; it didn’t reduce their hubris.
DUBNER: The ability to change your mind — would you say that’s really important as a human?
SLOMAN: I see the mind as something that’s shared with other people. I think the mind is actually something that exists within a community and not within a skull. And so, when you’re changing your mind you’re doing one of two things: you’re either dissociating yourself from your community — and that’s really hard and not necessarily good for you — or you have to change the mind of the entire community. And is that important? Well, the closer we are to truth, the more likely we are to succeed as individuals, as a species. But it’s hard.
DUBNER: Do you think that most of us hold the beliefs that we do because the people around us hold those beliefs, or do you think we’re more likely to assemble people around us based on the beliefs that they and we hold?
SLOMAN: The former is more often true. That is, we believe what we do because the people around us believe what they do. This is the way humanity evolved. We depend on other people. And it’s not simply a matter of getting us to think more independently. I actually think that this is one of the major problems with the kinds of solutions people are talking about today for our current political problems. I don’t think the solution is give people the information they need.
Matthew JACKSON: More information can be good if it’s very well-filtered and curated, but that’s not easy to do in an unbiased way.
That’s Matthew Jackson, an economist at Stanford. (Yes, I realize this episode is leaning heavily on Stanford professors.) Anyway, Matthew Jackson studies social and economic networks.
JACKSON: So, in particular, how the structure of social interactions affects people’s behaviors. Anything from how our opinions form to whether we decide to vote for a certain candidate.
Here’s something Jackson has changed his mind about:
JACKSON: One thing I used to think was that people, if you gave them the same kinds of information, they would make decisions the same way. They might have different experiences in their past, different influences. But somehow the fundamental ways in which they think about things and process things is the same.
That, however, is not what the data say.
JACKSON: The more you look at data, and in particular, the more you look at experiments where people are faced with facts or information, you realize that some people are very single-minded.
In one experiment, Jackson also asked people about climate change. He had everyone read the same batch of abstracts from scientific articles.
JACKSON: We asked people their opinions before they went in to the study, and you could see that people looking at exactly the same article would interpret it very differently depending on what their initial position was.
So again, information isn’t necessarily the solution. In fact, information can be weaponized.
JACKSON: There was a group of about a quarter to a third of the subjects who actually became more polarized, who interpreted the information heavily in the direction of their priors, and actually ended up with more extreme positions after the experiment than before.
We’ve talked about this phenomenon before on the show — that well-educated people who consume a lot of information tend to hold disproportionately extreme views, apparently because they’re really good at seeking out information that confirms their priors. And ignoring information that might run counter.
JACKSON: One aspect of people seeing exactly the same information and coming away with different conclusions is how we interpret and store information in our brains. It’s very easy to sort of snippet things into small little pieces that we can remember. “Oh, this was for or against.”
SLOMAN: We don’t like breaking things down in detail. We just — most of us like to have a superficial understanding.
Steven Sloman again.
SLOMAN: Why do you think Obamacare is good or bad, whatever you think about it? Now, the fact is, most people have very little to say about that. Most people just have a couple of slogans. They have the Republican slogan, they have the Democratic slogan; but they don’t actually know about Obamacare, because after all, it’s a 20,000-page document.
SLOMAN: I like to say even Obama doesn’t understand Obamacare.
But even if Obama does understand Obamacare, there’s the question of whether his understanding is unduly circumscribed by the people around him.
JACKSON: People tend to associate with other people who are very similar to themselves. So we end up talking to people most of the time who have very similar past experiences and similar views of the world, and we tend to underestimate that. People don’t realize how isolated their world is. You know, people wake up after an election and are quite surprised that anybody could have elected a candidate that has a different view than them.
So one antidote to inflexible thinking is simply balance.
JACKSON: In worlds where our network is well-balanced and we’re actually eventually incorporating everybody’s viewpoint, the system works extremely well.
Unfortunately, a great many of us are quite bad at creating diverse, well-balanced networks. And there’s a reason for this — a reason we struggle to listen to opposing voices and, therefore, have a hard time changing our minds.
SAPOLSKY: We are basically hardwired to divide the world into us and thems. And to not like the thems a whole lot.
That, again, is the half-neurobiologist, half-primatologist Robert Sapolsky, who’s changed his own mind many times.
SAPOLSKY: The domain that I’m most interested in these days is that change thing of turning thems into us-es — and how do we do that? And what the studies tend to show is: take somebody else’s perspective; try to go through what somebody else’s rationalizations are; individuate somebody, break them out of being an automatic them. And think about do they like the same pets that you do? Do they love their kids? Look at a picture of them singing lullabies to their children. Look at a picture of them enjoying the same food that you do. Contact — and this has been floating around for decades as a theory — give people, thems, enough contact with each other and they turn into us-es and it turns out contact works under very specialized circumstances. You’ve got to spend a bunch of time with thems. And us-es and thems need to be in equal numbers and in a neutral setting and you’ve got to have a shared sort of goal. I mean, all of these work to at least some degree. The peoples we hated in the past are allies now. There are outgroups that spent centuries being persecuted where we don’t even know what the word refers to anymore. And in all those cases, there’s something resembling biological pathways that help thems stop being so objectionable.
DUBNER: So before this conversation, if you had asked me what are the primary barriers that keep someone in a given situation from changing their mind, I would have certainly opted for the social and economic explanations. But it sounds as though you’re saying a larger share would go to the physiological and biological reasons, is that right?
SAPOLSKY: Well, the really irritating thing I would say is that the two are one and the same. We are nothing more or less than the sum of our biology. Every time you learn something, from something profound to something idiotic, something changes in your brain. Every time you have a sensory experience, your brain is constantly rewiring in major ways.
This idea — that the brain continues to change, physiologically, throughout our lives — this is yet another idea that Sapolsky himself had to change his mind about.
SAPOLSKY: Yeah, this is an aspect my field where I have missed the boat every step of the way. When I started off, this dogma had been in place for like 1,000 years’ worth of intro to neuroscience classes, which is: the adult brain doesn’t make new neurons. This is the basic premise of all the miserable, untreatable neurological diseases out there. And starting in the 60s, there was a one lone prophet named Joe Altman whose career was basically ruined because he was about 30 years ahead of the curve. And then in the late 80s, early 90s, some technique got a lot more sensitive and was able to show adult neurogenesis in the brain like crazy. And it became the hottest subject in the field. And I kept saying, “Ah, nah, that’s not a real phenomenon.” So I was — like really blew it on that one. It turns out that there’s a little pocket, a little population of stem cells, sitting in the hippocampus making new neurons. And what was even better was it made them at all the logical times — in response to learning, stimulation, exercise. And a ton of work showed that these new neurons actually are useful, and they are critical for new types of learning. So that ushered in this whole new world and then this beautiful new edifice of revisionism came potentially crashing down about a year ago. An extremely important and well-done paper that wound up in the journal Nature showed that despite the clear presence of tons of neurogenesis in rodent brains throughout the lifetime, in monkey brains, there was a lot of reason to think that not a lot of the same occurred in the human brain. And that a lot of the prior evidence for it was pretty circumstantial. And as you might expect, the specialists in the field have been stabbing each other over this one ever since. And it’s not clear what the resolution is.
It doesn’t get much more meta than that: a bunch of scientists changing their minds, and trying to change others’ minds, about whether the brain changes when we change our minds. Robert Sapolsky’s own research, about us-es and thems, led to one more change of mind, for Sapolsky.
SAPOLSKY: I would say the biggest thing that came out of that is I am in every fiber of my soul a profound pessimist, and sitting and obsessing for three, four years on what we know about the biological roots of humans being rotten to each other and humans being kind to each other, there’s actually a fair amount of room for optimism.
DUBNER: So your belief was that humans are disproportionately cruel to each other. That was the old belief, and the new belief is that that is not necessarily the case?
SAPOLSKY: It’s — well, we’re pretty lousy to each other. But the basic paradox of humans is simultaneously we are the most miserably violent species on this planet, and we are the most cooperative. We do stuff which from the standards of evolution and cooperation, game theory, all of that, would make stickleback fish just flabbergasted at how cooperative, how altruistic we are, how often we can do that for strangers. Each one of us, depending on the context can be awful, can be wonderful, or ambiguously somewhere in between.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Matt Hickey. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, and Corinne Wallace. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
Whether it’s a giant infrastructure plan or a humble kitchen renovation, it’ll inevitably take way too long and cost way too much. That’s because you suffer from “the planning fallacy.” (You also have an “optimism bias” and a bad case of overconfidence.) But don’t worry: we’ve got the solution.
* * *
In 1968 — 50 years ago — the governor of New York State, Nelson Rockefeller, received a proposal he’d commissioned. It addressed the mass-transit needs of the New York City area. One centerpiece of the plan was a new subway line that would run from lower Manhattan, up the East Side, and into the Bronx. It was called the Second Avenue Subway. Four years later, Rockefeller and New York City mayor John Lindsay held a ground-breaking ceremony for the Second Avenue Subway. But not long afterward, the project was shelved because of a fiscal crisis. Years later, a new governor, Mario Cuomo, tried to restart it. But once again, the budget would not allow — and back it went on the shelf. By now, the Second Avenue Subway had become a punchline. A New Yorker would promise to pay back a loan “once the Second Avenue Subway was built.” It came to be known as “the most famous thing that’s never been built in New York City.” But then, along came a man named Michael — here, I’m going to let him say it.
HORODNICEANU: Michael Horodniceanu. If you look to see how people on Second Avenue would recognize me as Dr. H. No one is really willing to pronounce my last name.
Okay, let’s go with “Dr. H.” He is a longtime transportation scholar and executive. In 2008, he became president of Capital Construction for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. And one of the first things he did was restart the Second Avenue Subway. By now it was 40 years since Governor Rockefeller’s original proposal. Dr. H. updated the budgets and estimates and finally got construction started. In 2010, a massive tunnel-boring machine began its work underneath 92nd Street.
HORODNICEANU: So they are about to start and they probed ahead into the rock, then suddenly the realization is that the quality of the rock was poor, in effect there was water going through there. So the decision was made that we have to freeze about — close to two blocks. It took us four months to actually freeze the ground. And it’s costly! On Second Avenue, we spent $10 million to do it.
Ten million dollars and four months just to freeze the ground just to start building the tunnel! Would New York City ever get its Second Avenue Subway? The reason this story became so famous is that it is such a grotesque example of a blown deadline. But surely you can identify. Surely you’ve been involved in something — maybe a work project, or a home renovation, even writing a paper — that was also grotesquely late? And painful? And expensive? Why are we so, so, so bad at finishing projects on time? And what are we supposed to do about it?
* * *
This episode begins, as so many good things do, in Canada.
BUEHLER: All right, well, I’m Roger Buehler and I’m a professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University.
That’s in Waterloo, Ontario.
BUEHLER: I study social cognition as well as judgment and decision-making.
Buehler has long wanted to know why we’re so bad at managing projects. His interest began during grad school, with a personal puzzle.
BUEHLER: Every night as I’d leave the office I would pack up my briefcase with jobs to do at home and more often than not I’d come back to the office the next day with all of it untouched. But every night as I packed up that briefcase, I was sure that my plans were realistic. So that was the puzzle. Why wouldn’t I learn from experience and get more realistic in my estimates?
DUBNER: In the beginning, did you think, “It must just be me, I must be the one who’s failing here”? Or did you recognize it as a generalizable phenomenon?
BUEHLER: Well, partly it seemed odd but then I noticed it in people around me, too. In fact, I remember some particular colleagues who were forever promising things and never coming through and noticing that, well, they seemed to believe it though when they’re when they’re saying it. It seems real. So it did start to seem like a more generalizable thing.
BUEHLER: So the planning fallacy is a tendency to underestimate the time it will take to complete a project while knowing that similar projects have typically taken longer in the past. So it’s a combination of optimistic prediction about a particular case in the face of more general knowledge that would suggest otherwise.
You can imagine the value of being able to diagnose, and treat, the planning fallacy. We all plan for the future — whether it’s a huge infrastructure project or a research paper that’s due in three weeks. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to plan better? So, first, Roger Buehler and some colleagues set out to measure the planning fallacy. Their first experiment used honors students who were working on their thesis projects. The researchers asked each student to predict when they’d submit their thesis.
BUEHLER: I know psychologists make use of students too much. But for this research, they really do have a lot of activities on the go and they’re kind of concrete activities often with clear deadlines, making them a nice population to actually study for this topic.
These students predicted, on average, that their theses would take 33.9 days to finish. How long did it actually take? Fifty-five-point-five days. That’s a 64 percent overage. Buehler and other researchers found similar evidence of the planning fallacy among stockbrokers and electrical engineers and doctors; they also found it in everyday activities like Christmas shopping, doing taxes, even waiting in line for gas.
DUBNER: So let me ask you the largest and most impossible question: What’s wrong with us? Why is there such a gap between intention and behavior?
BUEHLER: Right. Well, my thinking on this has been guided by a distinction drawn by Kahneman and Tversky between two types of thinking, one being a kind of inside approach and the other being an outside approach. And the inside approach involves really focusing on the case at hand and trying to work out the details of that unique case. It’s like you’re developing a mental scenario or mental simulation of how you think that project will unfold. But the problem is that mental simulations often don’t provide the thorough and comprehensive representation of how things will go. They tend to often be kind of idealized. Oversimplified. And when people get into that frame of thought, they don’t entertain alternative ways in which things may go. They kind of get locked into one scenario. But then I would couple that with also people’s wishes and desires. So, generally when you’re planning something out, you’re planning to succeed. You’re not planning to fail.
This second tendency that Buehler is talking about — seeing the future in rosy terms — there’s a name for that, too. It’s called the “optimism bias.”
SHAROT: I think it’s a wonderful thing.
Tali Sharot is a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London.
SHAROT: There are so many positive aspects to having an optimism bias. In fact, in our research we see that the people without an optimism bias tend, in most cases, to be slightly depressed at least, with severe depression being related to a pessimistic bias where people expect the future to be worse than it ends up being. So I mean it’s a good thing because it kind of drives us forward. It gives us motivation. It makes us explore different things. It’s related to better health — both physical and mental health — because if you expect positive things, then stress and anxiety is reduced. So that’s very good for both physical and mental health.
Sharot believes in the optimism bias, and she believes it is rooted in neuroscience. Her experiments have repeatedly shown that the brain tends to process positive information about the future more readily than negative information. It’s easy to see how that could feed the planning fallacy.
SHAROT: So, for example, if I tell you, “You know, you’re going to get many more listeners this week than usual.” You’d say, “Oh, okay.” And you’d kind of change your estimate and think it’s going to be 10 million. But if I tell you, “You’re going to get many less listeners this week,” than I expect you’d say, “Well, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
DUBNER: That’s exactly what I was saying in my mind, just so you know. Do you believe the optimism bias is baked in for legitimate or positive evolutionary purposes then? Or do you think it’s more of a little bit of a design flaw that we’ve learned can have some benefit?
SHAROT: So, I think it’s not a design flaw. And it’s a two-part answer. So the first part answer is it’s probably there because of all the positive aspects that I just mentioned. I mean we know that people who are optimists live longer. So we survive more. We’re more likely to find a partner. We’re more likely to have kids and all of that. So there is a clear survival benefit and a benefit to just progressing. However, as you imply, there are also these negative consequences. If we think everything’s going to be OK or better than what we anticipate, we might not take precautionary action. We might, you know, smoke when we shouldn’t and that kind of thing. So there are the negative aspects to it. But what our research shows is that it’s even better than what I just explained because the optimism bias is, in fact, flexible. So it changes in response to the environment. It can disappear under environments in a way that may be optimal.
Here’s what Sharot means by that. She and her colleagues run experiments in which they ask different kinds of people — firefighters, for instance — to assess the likelihood of bad things happening to them: getting divorced or being in a car crash or getting diagnosed with cancer. These are basically their wild guesses.
SHAROT: And then we give them information about the average likelihood of having these events for someone like them and then we ask them again.
Okay, so the firefighters would have their baseline guess and then they’d guess again after getting some statistical context. But there was another twist: they were also asked the question in two different environments: on days when they’d been fighting fires and during down time, when they weren’t.
SHAROT: And what we found was that when the firefighters were under stress, they learned more from this negative information. The more stressed they were, the more anxious they were — the more likely they were to take in any kind of negative information that we gave them, you know whether it’s about cancer or divorce or being in a car accident.
Based on these results, Sharot argues that human optimism is both adaptive and mutable. So that’s good to know: the optimism bias may be a sort of evolutionary insurance policy against hopelessness and depression. And maybe it’s played a role in some of the astounding progress that humankind has made over the millennia — you’d have to be pretty optimistic to come up with space travel and aspirin and French cuisine, n’est-ce pas? But still, wouldn’t it be nice to also figure out how to get projects done on time and on budget? That is something that Katherine Milkman has been thinking about for years.
MILKMAN: I’m a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Milkman’s Ph.D. is in computer science and business, but as an undergrad she studied operations research. Which means what?
MILKMAN: You try to figure out how to be more efficient about everything, using math.
To that end, Milkman has spent a lot of time studying, and teaching, the planning fallacy. And yet: this does not personally inoculate her against it.
MILKMAN: Well, I will tell you that it took longer to prepare to talk to you about this than I expected.
DUBNER: Like how long?
MILKMAN: I don’t know, like an hour.
DUBNER: Wow, yeah, that’s a lot.
MILKMAN: Yeah, but it’s planning fallacy. I was sure it would take, like, ten minutes.
In her research, Milkman has found that when groups work together on a project, a number of factors collude to form the planning fallacy.
MILKMAN: So one is overconfidence, or the tendency we have to think we’ll do things better than we will. We are overconfident for many, many reasons. One is that it makes us feel better about ourselves; we’re often rewarded for it. Imagine two people walked into an interview and one of them says, “I’m going to be great at this job, I’m great at everything I do.” And the other person says, “I hope to be great at this job, I try to be great at everything I do, but sometimes I fail.” I think most of us would respond more positively to the person who says, “I’m going to be great.” And that is a lifetime of feedback we give people, where we’re rewarding them for overconfidence constantly.
So there are individual biases like overconfidence. But with large projects, there’s also what’s called —
MILKMAN: Coordination neglect.
And coordination neglect is?
MILKMAN: The failure to think about how hard it is to put stuff together when other people are involved. And so that can make the planning fallacy bigger and badder when there are teams of people trying to finish work on time.
DUBNER: From an economic standpoint, this sounds backwards. You would think that larger size, theoretically, creates more specialization of labor, and ultimately higher productivity. Why doesn’t it?
MILKMAN: So when you staff a bigger team on a project, you focus on all the benefits associated with specialization, what you just mentioned. And what you neglect is to think about how challenging it is to get that work all back together into a single hole. So this engineer now has to talk to that engineer about how to combine their outputs into one integrated system.
And there’s one more component of the planning fallacy — a blatantly obvious one.
MILKMAN: It also relates to procrastination. Because of self-control failures, we put it off, and then that can make the planning fallacy a bigger issue. Because if you don’t start the project on time, because you keep putting it off, how in the world are you going to finish it on time?
DUBNER: And let me ask you this: what is, if we have any idea, the primary root cause of procrastination?
MILKMAN: Oh god, what is the primary root cause of procrastination? Like, get to the heart of everything I’ve thought about for the last 15 years in one question. I think the primary root cause of procrastination is impulse control. The fact that we tend to want to do what’s more instantly gratifying in the moment than what is better for us. And so we put off doing the things we know we should do, in favor of what’s instantly gratifying.
There is reason to believe that our impulse control is being tested today more than ever. With the revolution in digital communication has come a blizzard of notifications, alerts, messages, and more. While there are obvious upsides to the speed and magnitude of this communication, there are also costs: information overload is thought to decrease U.S. productivity by at least $1 trillion a year. What to do about all that wonderful, terrible digital distraction? We brought that question to Justin Rosenstein.
ROSENSTEIN: I’m the co-founder at Asana.
DUBNER: Okay. Asana — for those who don’t know what it is — let’s start with that.
ROSENSTEIN: Asana is software that enables teams to be able to work together more easily.
All right, but let’s back up. Rosenstein’s first job was at Google. Here’s how he envisioned that job before it began.
ROSENSTEIN: I’m going to be spending all my time working with these world-class engineers, world-class designers, figuring out great things that we can do to be able to make people’s lives better.
And he did work on some exciting projects.
ROSENSTEIN: I was the original product manager for Google Drive and helped co-invent a lot of that. I co-invented G-mail chat.
But the reality of working at Google didn’t match his vision of working at Google.
ROSENSTEIN: Literally the majority of the time was spent not doing work, not writing code, but was doing the work about work. It was making sure that the left hand knew what the right hand was doing. It was sitting in status meetings and preparing status updates.
At first, he thought he must have been doing something wrong.
ROSENSTEIN: There’s no way that this could be what everyone tolerates when they go to work and work in companies. And so I thought maybe this was something that was wrong with Google. Talked to people who worked at other companies and discovered to my horror, that no, Google was actually very advanced. Most companies were far less organized.
He looked around for software solutions. There were a lot — but none that did what he wanted.
ROSENSTEIN: What I really wanted was just a single place that I could go to see what is everyone on my team working on? And who’s responsible for which things? And what’s the sequence, and what are the dependencies between those things?
So, nights and weekends, he started hacking together some software to accomplish that.
ROSENSTEIN: And I just built it as something for me and a few dozen people that I worked with to use, but it grew virally within Google. And that really startled me, because Google has access to the best tools in the world. It was insane to me that there were so many people who were excited about what I had built.
But not long after, Rosenstein left Google — for Facebook.
ROSENSTEIN: At some point, I got a Facebook friend request from Dustin Moskovitz, who’s the co-founder of Facebook. And so eventually was persuaded that, yeah, it would be exciting to be a part of that. Actually one of the sad things about leaving Google was that I had to leave that tool behind that I had built inside Google.
DUBNER: Because it belonged to Google?
ROSENSTEIN: Because, yeah, it was the intellectual property of Google.
Rosenstein asked Moskovitz if Facebook had the same project-management problems he’d seen at Google.
ROSENSTEIN: And he was like, “You have no idea, I am tearing my hair out. By the time I get information about what the people in my own company are working, the information is so old that it’s wrong.”
By day, Rosenstein was helping invent Facebook’s “like” button. At night and on weekends, he and Moskovitz started talking about a software solution to help manage their workflow.
ROSENSTEIN: And at some point we started building it — we started actually implementing that solution. And this internal tool that we built at Facebook took off.
And they realized their solution wasn’t unique to Facebook, or Google, or just tech companies. What they’d developed, he believed:
ROSENSTEIN: We had developed a general solution that would enable any team to be able to work together more effectively.
DUBNER: So, this time did you own the I.P.?
ROSENSTEIN: That is Facebook’s I.P. and the work that we did there — actually Facebook still uses it to this day.
Rosenstein and Moskovitz eventually left Facebook to start up Asana.
ROSENSTEIN: What really made us decide that we wanted to leave Facebook, was really feeling like this was itself a Facebook-sized opportunity.
DUBNER: So I understand that you and Dustin, I guess, had an estimate for how long it would take to get the company up and running. I’d love you to talk about that and how long it actually took.
ROSENSTEIN: Yeah, we were hopeful, especially given that by this point, I had built some version of this twice. And we were like, maybe in about a year, we’ll be able to launch the first version of the product. And it took three years.
By now, Asana has a large and prestigious customer list. They’re one of dozens of companies that build productivity software; the market is estimated at $1.2 billion. Rosenstein, like Katy Milkman, believes that a key to success here lies in mastering impulse control and in fighting distraction
ROSENSTEIN: “Continuous partial attention” is this term for this state that it’s easy to get into if you’re not careful, where you’re never quite focused on any one thing. And I think humans in general tend to distract themselves. But we’ve entered a world in which distraction has become more and more the norm. Your cell phone buzzing, some chat message coming in. And there’s research from the University of California at Irvine that every time you get interrupted, it takes 23 minutes to fully recover.
DUBNER: It is an irony, however, isn’t it — in that you’re creating software to solve the problem that’s been created essentially by software?
ROSENSTEIN: Software has been a big contributor to that problem. And as I mentioned I co-invented the Like button —
DUBNER: — including the firms you used to work for.
ROSENSTEIN: I’ve thought about this issue quite a bit.
DUBNER: So this is all atonement, in other words, on some level at least, yeah?
ROSENSTEIN: Now, you point out this really important point that there are unintended consequences. And things that I’ve worked on in the past have had this property where even if you have the intention that they’ll be used entirely in a good way, sometimes there are negative things you couldn’t foresee. I think that the answer to that is neither to shrug and just say, “Well, whatever happens happens,” nor is it become a Luddite and say, “Well, we have no idea what the unintended consequence of anything is going to be so we shouldn’t even try building things.” The middle way is to accept there will always be unintended consequences, but we can notice those unintended consequences and then design through them.
* * *
There are a lot of reasons why that project you planned can take way longer than you anticipated, and cost way more. Outright fraud, for instance — the lying, cheating, and stealing familiar to just about anyone who’s ever had, say, a home renovation, especially in New York City. And yes, I speak from personal experience. There’s also downright incompetence; that’s hard to plan for. But today we’re talking about the planning fallacy, which was formally described a few decades ago by the psychologists Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky. When they started theorizing about how to correct for the planning fallacy, they identified what they thought was a key factor. When people estimate how long a project will take, they focus too much on the individual quirks of that project and not enough on how long similar projects took. This second approach is called reference-class forecasting.
GRUSHKA-COCKAYNE: The reference-class forecast says, actually if you’re planning project X that you’re about to start — ignore Project X.
That’s Yael Grushka-Cockayne. She teaches project management and decision-making at the University of Virginia. She’s currently a visiting professor at the Harvard Business School.
GRUSHKA-COCKAYNE: Don’t think about it too much. Look back. Look back at all the projects you’ve done, all the projects that are similar to this new project X, and look historically at how well those projects performed in terms of their plan versus their actual. See how accurate you were, and then use that shift or use that uplift to adjust your new project that you’re about to start.
As we’ve seen with Justin Rosenstein and Katy Milkman, Grushka-Cockayne does not always practice what she preaches.
GRUSHKA-COCKAYNE: I’m a pretty decent planner but I’m not as organized as I would probably recommend other people be. I like to improvise. I’m also— I’m Israeli and Israelis are notorious for being pretty spontaneous by nature. So we hate planning. And I’m married to a Brit who is, you know, the exact opposite. You know the Brits plan what they want to eat for lunch in about six months’ time. And I’m like, “I don’t know if I want custard or pudding — I don’t know, leave me alone.”
Grushka-Cockayne has been studying the planning fallacy in governments as well as in private firms. And she likes the trend line:
GRUSHKA-COCKAYNE: I will say that more and more companies these days are improving their performance overall.
She believes that further improvement lies in a stronger embrace of — no surprise here — data.
GRUSHKA-COCKAYNE: More and more government bodies are publishing some planned and some actual deadlines and budgets. And tracking performance and tracking historical plans and actuals is the fundamental first step in overcoming the planning fallacy. So the main broad insight is: you should track your performance, because if you just start with that, let alone anything more sophisticated, you would raise the profile of the issue as a performance issue within the organization, and you will improve.
One profession that exemplifies this improvement? Meteorologists, believe it or not.
GRUSHKA-COCKAYNE: While we like to give them a hard time, we all have weather apps on our phone and we trust them quite a great great deal because you know — putting it all together at the end of the day — they’re pretty accurate with their predictions. And, yes, they have sophisticated systems that decompose what they’re trying to predict, but they also track, and they score themselves, and they keep record of how accurate they were. And only by doing that will you stand a chance to improve.
Tracking and scoring the difference between forecasts and outcomes — that trend owes a lot to this man:
FLYVBJERG: My name Bent Flyvbjerg and I’m a professor at Oxford University’s SaThu, 16 May 2019 03:00:05 +0000
Here’s Why All Your Projects Are Always Late — and What to Do About It (Ep. 323 Rebroadcast)
The revolution in home DNA testing is giving consumers important, possibly life-changing information. It’s also building a gigantic database that could lead to medical breakthroughs. But how will you deal with upsetting news? What if your privacy is compromised? And are you prepared to have your DNA monetized? We speak with Anne Wojcicki, founder and C.E.O. of 23andMe.
* * *
In 2018, police in Sacramento, California, arrested a man who’d been eluding them for decades. The Golden State Killer, as he’d been known, was responsible for more than a dozen murders and 50 rapes.
Whit JOHNSON: This morning, new details of the rigorous investigation that detectives say brought down the Golden State Killer, more than 40 years after his alleged killing spree began.
Detectives had uploaded a DNA sample from the suspect to an open-source website called GEDmatch. The site provides, in its words, “DNA and genealogical analysis tools for amateur and professional researchers and genealogists.”
JOHNSON: We’ve just learned from multiple law enforcement sources that investigators used genealogy websites to help link DeAngelo to what was previously the unknown mystery DNA of the attacker.
GEDmatch lets anyone upload raw DNA data from home-genetics testing companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com. It turned out that at least 24 relatives of the suspect were included in the GEDmatch database. The police, by cross-referencing the suspect’s DNA data against Census data and cemetery records, were able to confirm that they had the right guy.
JOHNSON: Police say the 72-year-old appeared surprised when they swarmed his home Tuesday evening.
Kenneth CRAIG: More than 100 pages of heavily redacted court documents read like a real-life CSI , revealing that a DNA sample recovered this April sealed the case against him.
How remarkable is that? That a bunch of civilians just looking to fill out their family trees had inadvertently crowd-sourced the capture of a murderer. But not everybody saw it as remarkable in just that way.
Anne WOJCICKI: I’m Anne Wojcicki, and I am the co-founder and C.E.O. of 23andMe.
23andMe has become world-famous for their mail-in DNA spit kit. You send them some saliva and, for $99, they’ll send you an ancestry profile and for another hundred dollars, a lot of health information — from your purported risk of various diseases to whether you should be able to detect the smell of asparagus in your urine. But since the beginning, Wojcicki says she was hyper-sensitive about how and where the personal data of 23andMe customers would be used.
WOJCICKI: In our consent form, we specifically thought about, how do we make sure that we’re not set up for crime, and for the FBI to come and use this.
DUBNER: One story we read about recently was how the Chinese government has been using DNA testing, much of it driven by technology and data from the U.S., to enforce what some human-rights advocates see as discrimination against racial groups like the Uighurs. Does 23andMe think about, or participate in, some international regulatory structure to ensure that this kind of data is not used for discrimination, oppression, et cetera?
WOJCICKI: Since the early days of the company, there is a group called the Ethical Legal Social Community that has actively followed 23andMe, and what we’re doing, and what our consequences are. So what’s interesting is people often compare us to the tech world and what’s happening now. There’s a big difference, because there’s never really been an ethical, legal, social group following Google and Facebook and others. But we’ve always been hounded by this group. And, and frankly, I’m grateful to them now, because I think that we premeditated a lot of what’s coming in things like the Golden State Killer.
If you think the arrest of the Golden State Killer represents a revolutionary use of personal DNA — just wait: because the revolution is only just beginning.
* * *
Anne Wojcicki’s own family tree is pretty impressive. She’s the youngest of three daughters born to Stanley Wojcicki, an emeritus professor of physics at Stanford; and Esther Wojcicki, a journalist and beloved educator who’s won many awards. Esther recently published a book called How to Raise Successful People. One of their daughters, Janet, is a globe-trotting anthropologist and epidemiologist. Here’s Anne again:
WOJCICKI: She’s living in Japan now. She does studies in Rwanda, in rural Alaska.
DUBNER: And then there’s YouTube. Come on, don’t leave out YouTube sister.
WOJCICKI: Oh, she’s interesting too. I love her too.
Susan Wojcicki, the oldest sister, is the C.E.O. of YouTube, which is owned by Google. She was Google’s first marketing manager, its 16th employee overall. But her Google connection predates her employment: when the company was just getting started, Susan Wojcicki rented out part of her house to Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The Google-Wojcicki link expanded when sister Anne Wojcicki, shortly after founding 23andMe, married Sergey Brin. They had two kids, and divorced eight years later, in 2015. Anne Wojcicki, who’s now 45 years old, went to college at Yale, where she majored in biology and played varsity ice hockey. After graduating, she went to work in finance, primarily as a healthcare analyst for investment funds. Her focus was on biotech firms.
WOJCICKI: Wall Street was my really in-depth look at the health care system and how it works. And I started to realize that if I was a healthy 100-year-old, if I was never diabetic, I never had heart disease, I never had, walking issues, I’m not generating money for the healthcare system. There’s not a money-making opportunity in saying, “I’m going to solve how to keep you healthy.”
Wojcicki realized that the U.S. healthcare system — and its investors — were really good at monetizing illness. What about wellness? Not so profitable.
WOJCICKI: The problem is that the payment system is set up that you pay for treatments of conditions, but you don’t pay for ongoing health. If I stay healthy, no one really cares except for me. The consumer voice was really not represented. And it’s a shame that there’s not really a business model in place to say, “I’m going to reward you for keeping you healthier.”
DUBNER: And then, I read that Larry Page, one of the co-founders of Google, told you that even though you were doing this, pretty interesting, good work on Wall Street, that you were really part of the problem and not the solution. How true is that story? Was that a really big push for you deciding, “Hey, I’m going to get out of this business of profiting from this misaligned healthcare system, and instead try to start a company that does something different?”
WOJCICKI: Well, by the end of my tenure on Wall Street, after 10 years, I was in this very cynical place of — my sister would give a talk, she does work on obesity, and she would give a talk about obesity and the coming crisis, and how it’s going to be detrimental to society. And I would give the corollary talk that’s like: “Obesity, the ultimate moneymaking opportunity.” And we’d say, “Oh, obesity in China.” “These people aren’t just going to get sick and die right away. It’s 20 years of heart disease, diabetes, this and that.” And people would look at me like I was evil, and I was like, “No, I’m just reflective of how the system thinks.”
I was becoming really cynical. Like, look, this system it is meant for making money off sick people. And it was at that point, I would brainstorm with people, like, what can we do? We need a revolution. So, I would complain a lot, and one day, Larry was tired of me complaining, and was just like — in his Larry way, was like, “You’re either part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem, and it sounds like you’re part of the problem right now.” And it wasn’t the only motivating factor, but it’s a good reminder.
In 2006, Wojcicki co-founded 23andMe with the biologist Linda Avey and the entrepreneur Paul Cusenza. It was one of the first direct-to-consumer personal genomics companies. Since then, a few dozen DNA-testing-kit services have come to market; the M.I.T. Technology Review predicts that by 2021, more than 100 million people will be part of commercial genetic databases. A lot of people are just in it for the family connections — that’s the main appeal of the biggest player, Ancestry.com. But 23andMe has, from the outset, also offered the option of a personalized health report. It’s a saliva test, remember, not a blood test. It doesn’t diagnose disease; instead, it purports to link your genetic makeup to potential risk for certain diseases and the likelihood of other traits.
With five million customers who’ve bought the health reports, 23andMe has the world’s largest database of genetic information for medical research. And that, as we’ll hear today, comes with a lot of complications. When 23andMe was starting out, their health reports were not approved by the F.D.A. Wojcicki didn’t think they needed the approval. But the F.D.A. disagreed.
WOJCICKI: In November of 2013, we got a warning letter from the F.D.A.
Federal law states that any kit intended to cure, mitigate, treat, prevent, or diagnose a disease is a “medical device” that needs to be declared safe by the F.D.A.
WOJCICKI: We did not believe at that time that we were a medical device. And to this day a lot of what we do is very different than traditional medical devices. So, it became abundantly clear with our warning letter, there’s no more debates, we are a medical device. And what we were asked to do was to stop returning health information. We could continue returning raw data, and we could continue returning ancestry information, but we had to stop interpreting the health information for our customers, and we had to go through an F.D.A. process.
DUBNER: And what was the response in your building, to that letter? That must have felt like a punch in the gut.
WOJCICKI: It was more, like, wow, well, the onus is really on us. We own the responsibility to prove to the F.D.A. that this is actually a responsible company and product. So we went through methodically, trying to go and get approvals for our past reports. And, it was hard work, but, if the F.D.A. wants data, wow, we’re good at generating data, so we’ll prove it. And frankly, I am grateful to the F.D.A. that when I buy a product, I have a high confidence that it’s safe. So, as much as I was upset about this, I’m also respectful of the position that they’re in, that they have a job to monitor public safety.
In 2017, the F.D.A. gave 23andMe permission to send their customers genetic risk reports for 10 ailments or conditions, including breast and ovarian cancer, celiac disease, late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Here’s what the agency said at the time: “These are the first direct-to-consumer tests authorized by the F.D.A. which may help to make decisions about lifestyle choices or to inform discussions with a healthcare professional.”
WOJCICKI: We’re really trying to make a constructive difference in the healthcare space. And I’m using all that information I had to empower the customer — empower all of us to take charge and make a difference and actually be healthy.
DUBNER: Right. So, by pursuing a vision that is about a solution, and that doesn’t monetize illness, you started a company that’s now valued somewhere around between $2 and $3 billion, is that about roughly right?
WOJCICKI: It’s the least of my worries. Valuations are always important, but to me the ultimate financial success, when I can point to like, “Hey, 20 million people didn’t die in their 40s because of me,” then I’ll feel like, yeah, that’s worth bragging about.
DUBNER: I mean, the irony though is that you have successfully monetized the — I don’t know exactly what to call it — the curiosity about, or the pursuit of, wellness and, and/or connection?
WOJCICKI: I actually disagree. One thing that drives me crazy in health care is that there’s always this assumption that you and I — the individuals, the lay people, the non-Ph.D.’s, the non-M.D.’s — that we are incapable of taking care of ourselves. And I think, people, when they’re sick, or they’re given the opportunity, they actually want to step up. They just need that advice, they need the information. The majority of people who are thinking about getting pregnant don’t necessarily get carrier-status screening before the pregnancy. But if I walk into my doctor and I say, “Hey, I’m thinking of having children, and I’m a carrier for cystic fibrosis, and my partner is a carrier for this mutation,” that’s a helpful dialogue. So we potentially fill in clues that wouldn’t have otherwise come up.
DUBNER: And do you feel that physicians and medical providers are taking this information in the spirit that you intend it?
WOJCICKI: We have a long way to go here. We’ve put a fair amount of resources, in the last couple of years, in terms of outreach to key providers. The next phase of this company is specifically about helping people take action with this genetic information, and also helping the medical community value consumers coming with their genetic information. The thing I’m most proud of is that we have shown that you can get this information on your own, truly direct-to-consumer, without a physician, and without a genetic counselor. And that’s a monumental step for the customer, for the individual. And the reality is the average person has less than 10 minutes with their doctor. This is an opportunity for people to educate themselves in a way that best suits them.
DUBNER: If I’m a doctor, or the A.M.A., hearing you say that, I shudder a little bit though, because most doctors I know and most literature I’ve read on it says that one of the biggest problems that the medical profession has now is people coming in with information that’s often incomplete or wrong. So, persuade me that you defend that position because it’s the right position, and not just because you’ve chosen for your firm to go the route of direct-to-consumer, rather than with physician or genetic-counseling contact.
WOJCICKI: Well, I think that the consumer today often doesn’t have a relationship with a primary-care provider. So, I do think that there is a responsibility for the consumer to get educated, to have information, to keep track of it. So as you spoke, you made the assumption, like, well, some of the information is incomplete or wrong — we just went through the F.D.A. process. We prove the information we have is valuable, and it’s correct.
There are a couple important caveats to consider here. Many other personal-genomics companies do require some sort of physician approval or genetic counseling, to ensure that customers don’t misinterpret their risk information or perhaps make poor decisions based on it. Also: even though a 23andMe risk report is definitively not a diagnosis, you can imagine how learning about a risk can carry some costs in addition to the benefits.
DUBNER: It sounds as though you believe in the upside of knowing as much as you can as early as you can, but I’m guessing you can also empathize with those people who think that, “Wow, just having that word in my head, ‘Parkinson’s’ or ‘Alzheimer’s,’ might exact a cost that might not allow me to live my life to the fullest.
WOJCICKI: This is where I go to that, that whole choice again. Too much of healthcare is forced on us. I think that health care should empower people with more choice. And, it’s one of the core tenets that we have is, if you don’t want to know your Alzheimer’s results, you absolutely should not know them, and that’s your choice. That’s why we actually do have an additional layer of consent on top of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, breast cancer. So, we want to make sure that our customers are never shocked and surprised.
Two years after 23andMe was cleared by the F.D.A. to deliver those 10 risk reports, it launched a new health report — for Type 2 diabetes, one of the most common diseases in the world. A recent C.D.C. study estimates that roughly 40 percent of the adult U.S. population is expected to develop diabetes during their lifetime; it’s the seventh-leading cause of death in the U.S. The 23andMe risk report for diabetes is particularly interesting, in that it was developed exclusively using 23andMe customer data — more than 2.5 million customers who consented to participate. It also used a new method of detecting disease risk.
WOJCICKI: One of the most interesting things that’s come up scientifically over the last decade is these, what’s called polygenic risk scores. So, not looking at just one gene and a disease, but looking at thousands or even millions of small effect sizes and adding all of those up to see: wow, this really adds up to a risk factor for people, and we feel like this is a lot of the direction where healthcare is going to go, is in these polygenic risk scores.
You might have expected that a new diabetes-risk test would generate a lot of enthusiasm. But much of the immediate response was critical. Polygenic risk scores work best for people of the same ethnic background as those who provided the data that goes into the risk algorithm. And 23andMe’s database is overwhelming composed of people of European descent. Diabetes is an especially significant threat for African-Americans. An article in Wired argued that the new 23andMe diabetes risk test “is tuned to be most useful for skinny white people.”
DUBNER: So, let me ask you this. I know your database is pretty European-heavy, and some people think it’s way too white. But, it’s also voluntary. So, I don’t know what diversity you’re trying to encourage, but let me just ask you about one particular element of that question. As I’m sure you well know, there’s a really long and terrible history in this country of African-Americans being exploited by the medical system.
DUBNER: Some of the stories are just truly horrifying, and the data show that African-Americans today are still much less likely to participate in the health care system. Whether that’s a direct cause or not, who knows, but — and that’s got a serious downside. So are we seeing that same reluctance now, do you think, among the African-American population, maybe other populations, that there’s just a skepticism, the idea of putting their DNA into a database like this is too frightening? And, if that’s true, what are we, the universe, missing out on by not having the sample be as representative as we might like?
WOJCICKI: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, first, we have 20 percent roughly of our customers are non-European. So, while that’s a small percent, that said, on our size and scale, it is the largest such communities out there. So, we’re actually really able to do a lot of research on different communities. That said, I’m absolutely empathetic to some of these communities that have been poorly treated.
Secondly, we’re doing a lot to try and improve relationships there. We actually have a global genetic diversity project where we are recruiting individuals from specific countries like Tanzania, and Cameroon, Chad. So, we have a bunch of countries where we’re actually offering free testing for people to come in and part of the reason why we do that is the more people who come in from those communities, then we can actually develop the reports to be representative of all populations.
So building a risk test that’s useful for as many people as possible — that’s one challenge. But there’s another big challenge, perhaps far greater, when it comes to dispensing personalized health-risk reports. How do you translate the knowledge of risk into action? How do you ensure that someone who learns they’re at risk for some major disease actually does anything about it (other than worry, or get depressed).
WOJCICKI: We have a lot of information on the site in terms of, what are resources for you, so that people look at this, and they at least know where to go. We’re actively now looking at programs of ways to help people better understand food and behavior. And our first step with that was this partnership we have with Lark. It’s A.I. coaching, and it’s trying to help people change their behaviors. And that’s sort of the next generation of what’s coming.
DUBNER: So give me whatever evidence there may be that learning about an increased risk via 23andMe, or some other genetic test, actually leads to changes in individual behavior.
WOJCICKI: Well, we actually did a study with Robert Green at Harvard, and he looked at our saturated-fat report. And he was looking at what people want to do with this information. And he found that, I think it was even at six months, over 40 percent of our customers, whether they had an increased risk of being overweight from saturated fat or not, they were looking to make changes to their diet.
DUBNER: What does that mean “looking to make changes?”
WOJCICKI: And that was sustainable at six months.
DUBNER: Doing it, or looking to do it?
WOJCICKI: Well, what we find is, a lot of people don’t know what is saturated fat. Well, what do I do? People get a BRCA result, or they get carrier-status information. They write in to us, and they tell us what they are doing. Customers all over the world that I end up meeting and telling me about what they learn and how they’ve changed.
The study that Wojcicki cited — Robert Green of Harvard was one of several co-authors — it’s not quite as persuasive as one might hope. It’s called “Diet and Exercise Changes Following Direct-to-Consumer Personal Genomic Testing,” and it involved an online survey of about 1,000 users of 23andMe and another personal genetics company. First of all, keep in mind something we’ve said on this show many, many times: self-reported data are not necessarily the most robust data. And I’m putting that kindly.
This survey asked people about their diet and exercise habits just before they received their health-risk reports and again six months later. The study’s authors write: “although nearly a third of participants reported making diet and exercise changes that were directly motivated by their personal genomic testing results, there was no consistent evidence that specific genetic risk information received from personal genomic testing … were associated with the specific diet and exercise variables that we measured.” In other words: maybe people who sign up for a genetic-risk report are the kind of people who are already motivated to make a change. And getting the risk report may be a consequence of that change, not a cause. We found another study suggesting this explanation may be the truer one.
DUBNER: So, I am looking at a 2016 British Medical Journal report about whether genetic testing leads people to alter their lifestyles or behaviors. And it finds basically, it doesn’t. It says, quote “expectations have been high that giving people information about their genetic risk will empower them to change their behavior, to eat more healthily, or to stop smoking, for example, but we have found no evidence that this is the case.” So, we know behavior change is really hard, and I’m just curious I guess about, holistically, overall confidence that the information will actually be a net gain.
WOJCICKI: I’d throw the Larry Page quote back at you. If you’re really that down on humanity, that you don’t think people can change their behaviors, and there’s no way of getting them to change your behaviors, it’s a really sad outlook. And I believe that there is a way to do that, and we just haven’t figured out the right way. And I look at a lot of these cognitive-behavior tools that are online, that are working — honestly, you look at the Diabetes Prevention Program that started in the early 2000s, and that was better than most drug therapies out there. So, there are ways to get people to change their behavior. I’m really optimistic about the potential of the Internet. It’s a sad state that the majority of the medical world has essentially resigned themselves that people are not willing to change. And I’m a believer in humanity, that people given the right tools, people will step up.
DUBNER: I am so optimistic about your optimism. And I’m generally very much an optimist as well. But the only thing I would say on this point in particular, in terms of especially personal health, is that we do have a lot of data in the modern era when the risk factors to personal health have been really pronounced, in part by the abundance and cheapness of low-grade food, and the ability to be really sedentary. And what we see is that even though we have known for quite a long time now what a good diet looks like, what good sleep looks like, the dangers of smoking, the benefits of exercise, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera — the vast majority of people are not able to commit themselves to that routine, even though the knowledge is there. And it speaks to a lot of things that are complicated about humans, which is, things that are pleasurable are really hard to constrain. And I just wonder if maybe the issue is that the people like you, who are incredibly accomplished and intelligent, but also disciplined, maybe assume that the rest of us are as disciplined as you are, and whether that’s a sort of disconnect?
WOJCICKI: I base more of this experience — and even a lot of my customers, customers all over the world that I end up meeting, or people who are doing my hair for a talk and telling me about what they learned and how they’ve changed. The one thing to recognize, it’s absolutely hard. It’s much easier to say, “Here’s a pill, you’re high-risk for Type 2 diabetes or you’re pre-diabetic — here’s Metformin. Take a pill and be done.” It’s harder to change behavior, and that’s 100 percent. But it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And there’s something about your DNA — of getting something that’s in black and white that’s like, “Wow, we should potentially really take this seriously.”
* * *
Anne Wojcicki is C.E.O. and a co-founder of the personal-genetics-testing company 23andMe. It provides, for a fee of $99, a wealth of information about your ancestry, and for $199, an additional report on your health characteristics and risks. The company has about 10 million total customers, slightly more than half of whom buy the full ancestry-plus-health report. But those are one-time fees; is that enough to justify the company’s valuation of several billion dollars?
Here’s another way to look at it: 23andMe charges people a couple hundred dollars to supply individual genetic information which, when aggregated with millions of other people, creates a database that may have massive implications for the future of healthcare — and for the financial future of 23andMe. Last year, the British pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline made a $300 million investment in 23andMe in exchange for the rights to use their genetic data for drug discovery. In addition to GSK, 23andMe has partnered with or taken investments from Pfizer, Genentech, and Procter & Gamble — as well as several non-industry partners, including universities and institutes.
DUBNER: So, let’s start with just what you’re trying to accomplish in these cases and how your data gets put to use, or maybe I should say, how our data collectively gets put to use.
WOJCICKI: Yeah. One thing I always found interesting, when I was on Wall Street is that people would consent to be part of research, and then they’d find out that nothing had happened to their sample.
DUBNER: What do you mean nothing had happened to their sample, they were disappointed nothing happened??
WOJCICKI: So, cancer patients, for instance, consent to a study at Harvard for instance, or Stanford. And then they find out that their sample is just sitting in a refrigerator. And for somebody with a fatal illness, that can be maddening. “I just gave you my data. Do something.”
In the early days of 23andMe, Wojcicki says they recruited a community of sarcoma patients to share their genetic data, with the hopes of advancing research.
WOJCICKI: Sarcoma is one of those diseases that’s very diverse, it’s poorly understood, it’s hard for any one center to have enough patients to do big research projects. We had all these people come in, and we talked about different ways we’re going to do research, and consent, and we’re getting their feedback. I remember the woman looking at me, and she was like, “Anne, I’m going to die in the next twelve months. Stop asking me, do something meaningful that’s either going have an impact on me, or is going to have an impact on my children.” And I think about that all the time.
When I look at academia, there’s a lot of fiefdoms. It’s hard for one center on the East Coast to share samples with another center on the West Coast. And it became almost insulting to me. I want to do more. 23andMe is a platform, essentially for people to say, “I want my data to be used broadly in research.” And frankly, pharma companies are the companies that are discovering treatments for diseases. 23andMe has over 150 publications that we’ve done, and we’ve done hundreds of studies. Almost every disease has representation. So, we have over 19,000 people with Parkinson’s. We have over a million people who are genetically high-risk for Alzheimer’s. Eight hundred thousand people with heart disease. Over 10,000 people with colorectal cancer. Seven-hundred-fifty thousand people people with depression. So, massive numbers. We’re trying to allow individuals to have an impact on the research world and discoveries and improve the state of health care for all.
DUBNER: Are these the largest such numbers in the world?
WOJCICKI: Oh, by far. There should be more media outcry that I’m not doing enough, frankly.
A cynic might have a different complaint. A cynic might say that Anne Wojcicki tells an origin story about 23andMe that’s based on her disgust with how Wall Street monetized illness; but that the firm she built uses consumer data to partner with pharmaceutical companies in order to monetize illness.
DUBNER When we asked listeners of our show what they most wanted to hear about when it comes to home-DNA testing, a majority dealt with privacy. The privacy concern was one that we hear a lot, and another is — is frankly, it’s profit. So, the idea is like, “Wait a minute, I’m paying 23andMe for a kit and the test, and the results — 100 bucks for just ancestry, or 200 for health and ancestry — So, I’m paying for the service, but then I read that 23andMe uses my genetic data to make commercial deals with pharmaceutical companies, or so on. And then I start to think, “Well, okay, I opted in — I understand that, and I really like the idea of advancing science, but shouldn’t you be paying me for that instead of me paying you, because my data’s worth a lot more to you than maybe it is to me.”
WOJCICKI: Right, so, the most important thing I have found from customers is that they want to see the results. They’re not interested in a $50 check. Secondly, we’re not a profitable company. We are doing all kinds of research deals. We have our own drug-discovery team. We are also investing a lot in researching prevention. So the theoretical funding of like, “Oh, all this money coming in,” is not there. That said, we’re really committed — and this is something that we think about quite a bit in the long term — when we do have a successful therapeutic on the market, or I do have a successful way of preventing a condition, how do I give back to my customers? And that’s ten years out.
So at this stage, the most important thing I can do is give people a sense of pride of what they have done. And say, here’s the papers that you’ve been part of, here’s the contribution that you’ve had, and I think that as we develop therapeutics, when that theoretical cash flow can come, we’ll have to think about what’s the right way that our customers feel like they’ve benefited.
DUBNER: Do you know what the first one or two therapeutics will be?
WOJCICKI: I mean, the one thing I learned from biotech is that at this stage, you never know. We have 13, 14 compounds in research stage and in development. I’m hopeful that we will be in humans in the coming years. And it’s diverse from cancer to asthma, heart disease. And we have this big partnership with GSK, and what was great there is that we needed a partner who could help us scale. If I know that I have a genetic discovery, and I’m sitting on it, my customers should be angry at me. I should do whatever I can to try to develop those sooner. That was the beauty — GSK really helps us scale.
DUBNER: How does 23andMe protect a customer’s privacy generally?
WOJCICKI: I mean, privacy is, it is key to the company. So in terms of internet security, we do everything we can, recognizing that there’s always limits. We try to be very real with people. When you’re online there’s always a risk. But we do everything we can to make sure, from engineering and infrastructure and data security. We’re doing everything we can there.
DUBNER: Has 23andMe ever been substantially hacked?
WOJCICKI: No. I’m really proud of the team. We had a lot of our core engineers in the early days came from banking. And I love saying look, your DNA is beautiful, but would I rather see your DNA or your bank account? So, there’s a lot to learn from the banking industry. The thing that we’ve really tried to pioneer is sharing options. So, for instance, right now, in HIPAA, it’s really super-restrictive, and I would say it’s harmful. A lot of the ways HIPAA functions, it prevents any beneficial sharing. And what 23andMe has tried to pioneer is saying, I’m giving you options. The thing people don’t understand about privacy is, what privacy means is choice — is that, I want the choice of saying I’ve opted in, and I want the choice of opting out.
DUBNER: Now, let’s say I want to opt into all those things, but I’m also concerned that my data — non-aggregated, non-anonymized data — may somehow end up in the hands of, one day, a healthcare company, or insurer or an employer, present or future, or a future partner or spouse.
WOJCICKI: So we explicitly say we never share your individual-level data without your explicit consent. So unless you have explicitly told us we can share your individual-level data, we are never going to.
When someone decides to take a home-DNA test, whether for the health-risk profile or just for ancestry purposes, there’s one huge variable that is perhaps impossible to prepare for: how the information contained therein will affect you, and the people you know, and perhaps people you don’t know.
JOHNSON: Police say the 72-year-old appeared surprised when they swarmed his home Tuesday evening.
A very public outcome, like the capture of the Golden State Killer, may be rare, at least for now. Much more common are the revelations that can reverberate within a given family. In 2010, when Anne Wojcicki was still married to Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, Brin took a 23andMe test and learned he had a genetic mutation associated with higher rates of Parkinson’s disease.
WOJCICKI: It’s an interesting story, because it was recommended to us that there was no reason to test, because it was so unlikely that he would ever have it. Right there, it’s an example where the medical community was like, “Don’t bother getting the information, there’s no reason to get it, and what would you do if you did have it?” So the convenience of having a genetic-testing company is, “Well, don’t mind me, we’ll put that mutation on our chip.” We were able to test for it. And I remember the moment sitting in the kitchen and being like, “Hold on a second. I think your mom, she has two copies of this, and you have one copy,” and, like, the surprise of, “Holy cow, you guys have this.” And the advantage, of finding out young is that it gives a lot of time to think about what are the actions you’re doing, and how do you want to try and prevent, and how do you want to live your life?
DUBNER: Did everyone in your family do a 23andMe DNA test?
WOJCICKI: Yeah. For a while, I felt bad, we’d have relatives visiting, and we’d present them with a spit kit. We’re like, “No, no, no, it’s not an entry criteria to dinner. We’re just really interested in building the family tree in this way.” It’s super-interesting.
DUBNER: Now, I understand you learned at least one surprising thing in the familial DNA testing.
WOJCICKI: Yeah, my mom called me one day, and she’s like, “There’s this guy on 23andMe and it looks like we’re pretty closely related to him.” I joke because she has a brother. Who never had children.
WOJCICKI: But lo and behold—
DUBNER: That you knew of—
WOJCICKI: It turns out that he did have a child, and was given up for adoption, and this person was raised as an only child, and then suddenly logs in to 23andMe, and lo and behold: there’s a lot of us on 23andMe. It’s been really lovely, there’s a lot of things I can see, similarities with my uncle, similarities with the family.
DUBNER: So, you’ve developed a relationship, it sounds like. Yeah?
WOJCICKI: Oh yeah. For sure. Oh no, we see him quite a bit. To me, one of the most exciting things that 23andMe is doing is redefining family, identifying people who were part of the family that for one reason or another have been disconnected. As a child of Jewish descent, lots of family left Russia in the Holocaust, and it’s amazing to be able to reconnect people. I love it, I looked actually online the other day, and I saw, “Wow, I have a couple other relatively close cousins I need to connect with.”
DUBNER: I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of happy stories. I’m guessing you’ve heard weird stories, too. And it seems that there is like a new literary genre being born right now — which is the memoir where someone discovers that their relatives aren’t who they thought they were. And you are part of the mechanism that made that possible. And like you said, for you, it’s got great connotations and great actualities, but there are all these family secrets that are being exploded by science. And I’m just curious A) how you feel about that and B) I’m also curious whether that was an unintended consequence of what you’ve done, or whether you anticipated that would be happening.
WOJCICKI: So, I recognize, you have a range of stories. Often people are pretty excited about being united, and sometimes it’s not easy on day one, but that — it’s a journey. And what’s so interesting about the time period we’re in right now is that all kinds of things that were not disclosed are suddenly being unearthed. The most important thing we can do is make sure that our customers are aware of the potential.
DUBNER: Is this however the end of, let’s say anonymous adoption, as we know it? And anonymous egg and sperm donation?
WOJCICKI: Egg and sperm donors have to be aware that this is a technology that allows people to find each other.
DUBNER: But a lot of people who’ve donated over the past let’s say even 50 years who are now being discovered. I mean, you can imagine what a jarring moment that may be.
WOJCICKI: Yeah. And I, I empathize with those people. I can imagine the shock for some of them. The world is changing pretty rapidly. And I’m happy that one of the unintended consequences of 23andMe is connecting people. And my hope here is that people start to look — as it goes from the weird to the wonderful, people absorb, and they can say, this is actually pretty common.
DUBNER: I was just thinking how boring the world would have been if you had come along a few thousand years ago. Because so many stories throughout history, from the Bible and royal families, so many of them are about fertility secrets. Think of all the plays that couldn’t have been written. So, I’m glad you waited until the 21st century to do it.
WOJCICKI: Well, now there’ll be a new generation of fertility-related stories.
WOJCICKI: There’s something about your genetics which is potentially more powerful than looking in the mirror. There’s a reveal that happens.
DUBNER: What do you think that is? It’s so curious to me, because I’ve read, do you know the book by Dani Shapiro, Inheritance it’s called?
WOJCICKI: I haven’t read it.
DUBNER: She came from an Orthodox Jewish family, and she was always the blonde outlier, but she was very, very, very, very proud of her family’s Orthodox history and ancestry. For her, it was jarring, because she had no idea that her father was not her biological father.
Dani SHAPIRO: Let me tell you what it’s like to find out you were wrong — just plain wrong — about who you are and where you come from.
DUBNER: And literally she wrote almost something like you just said, like “stronger than looking in the mirror.”
SHAPIRO: To look in the mirror one day and see a stranger staring back at you. That’s what happened to me. A family secret was kept from me for my entire life. And in the middle of the night, I sometimes ask myself this question. Who am I? Who am I, now that I know the truth?
DUBNER: I’m curious why you think that is, because I didn’t frame it that way in my mind. I think that who raises you and the environment that you’re in, that is so much more powerful or meaningful than the biological determination. And yet, it seems, a lot of people say what you’re saying, and I’m just curious if you have any I guess philosophical-ish thoughts about why that pull is so strong and deep?
WOJCICKI: Well, I think a couple of things. There’s something about your roots. You’re connected to these people. There’s a story. And for some people, that story is important, and for some people it’s just not. And I think that we are in a moment in society where a lot of people don’t feel grounded, and there’s something about looking at your DNA and finding a trace in the past and where it’s been. And those roots and the connections and understanding why — why are you the way you are today? Why do I have these preferences? Why do I look a certain way?
DUBNER: And why does my pee smell like asparagus?
WOJCICKI: It’s everyone’s top question.
DUBNER: Are you kidding?
WOJCICKI: No. I’m kidding. Yeah. I was gonna say — people are looking for a question of like, “Why am I the way I am?” And that’s actually a beautiful question. There’s spectacular human diversity on this planet. And we’re all a little bit different. And you see mutations in certain areas have given rise to certain characteristics. And and there’s all kinds of reasons why those mutations have happened. Each mutation actually has a story, and those mutations connect you to other people and to the past.
One of the favorite things my children and their cousins love doing, is looking at what DNA do they have in common with each other? And and it’s fun to look at, okay the eye genes — who has them in common? Who got them from the other grandparents? There’s a different way of feeling like I’m, I’m connected to you, I have this bond. And I think that, like I said, people are looking for meaningful connections.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Rebecca Lee Douglas. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, Matt Hickey, and Corinne Wallace. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.[ + ]
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Anne Wojcicki, founder and C.E.O. of 23andMe.
- “Diet and exercise changes following direct-to-consumer personal genomic testing,” by Daiva Elena Nielsen, Deanna Alexis Carere, Catharine Wang, J. Scott Roberts, and Robert C. Green (BMC Medical Genomics, 2016).
- “The impact of communicating genetic risks of disease on risk-reducing health behaviour: systematic review with meta-analysis,” Gareth J Hollands, David P. French, Simon J. Griffin, A. Toby Prevost, Stephen Sutton, Sarah King, Theresa M. Marteau (The British Medical Journal, 2016).
Thu, 09 May 2019 03:00:17 +0000
23andMe (and You, and Everyone Else) (Ep. 378)
As the cost of college skyrocketed, it created a debt burden that’s putting a drag on the economy. One possible solution: shifting the risk of debt away from students and onto investors looking for a cut of the graduates’ earning power.
* * *
We’re working on an episode about the economics of “household innovation” — that is, when people invent things for their own use, without the explicit goal of commercialization. Are you that person who tinkers in their workshop? Or maybe you’ve hacked together some software for your own specific needs? If you’ve ever invented anything worth telling us about — well, we’d like you to tell us about it. We’d like to hear about the invention itself, your motivation — also, how much time and money you put into it. Make a brief audio recording — just use whatever voice memo app is on your phone — and e-mail the file to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line “Invention.” Please be sure to tell us your name, what you do, and where you’re from. Thanks.
Also: If you’d like to see Freakonomics Radio Live, tickets are on sale now for upcoming shows in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Tickets and info at freakonomics.com/live. Hope to see you there.
* * *
Stephen DUBNER: You recently called higher education a “racket.” You’re selling a product that everyone is convinced is essential. It’s got uncertain R.O.I., quality that’s difficult to measure, and you can raise prices without losing customers. That doesn’t sound like something we’re used to hearing from a college president.
Mitch DANIELS: I was being a little facetious, of course, but I was making the point that at least until recently, higher ed has been in a very fortunate place, where nothing much could go wrong. People did feel they had to have what it was selling, and they could charge almost anything they felt like — people had no way to know if they were getting a good deal or not, whether the quality was up to the price. Now, that’s changing now, and should.
It’s changing in part because of this man:
DANIELS: I’m Mitch Daniels, I’m currently the president of Purdue University.
Purdue is a large, well-regarded state university, established in 1869, in West Lafayette, Indiana. There are more than 32,000 undergraduates and nearly 10,000 grad students. It’s best known for its business and engineering programs; it’s produced more astronauts than any other non-military institution. Mitch Daniels spent most of his career not in academia, but rather in business — he worked for the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly — and, primarily, in politics. He worked in two White Houses:
He became a popular two-term governor.
ANNOUNCER: He was elected governor of Indiana in 2004 and turned around a struggling economy.
DANIELS: This state was broke when we got here, and we fixed that in a great big way.
Daniels was such an economic pragmatist:
ANNOUNCER: An area Indiana has fared better than most states is by reining in the state budget.
Some people thought he might make it to the White House:
ANNOUNCER: Now the latest on the 2012 race, and another potential candidate for President: Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.
But instead of that presidency, he’s six years into this one, at Purdue. And he’s threatening to blow up the economic orthodoxies of college education:
DANIELS: The all-in cost of attending our school in 2021 will be less than it was in 2012.
Not everyone loves his cost-cutting:
ANNOUNCER: Hollers and cheers erupted when several staff and faculty members voiced their concerns about changes to Purdue’s paid time-off policy.
Robyn MALO: It sometimes is depressing to work at because it feels like it is bad thing after bad thing after cut after cut.
But Mitch Daniels believes he knows what college should be — and what it shouldn’t be:
DANIELS: Water features and climbing walls. And concierge services.
There’s a college-tuition debt crisis in America, and it’s even worse than you think. So what’s being done to fix it?
* * *
If you look at higher education as an industry — which you should, because essentially it is — then you’d have to acknowledge that this industry has been booming. Between 2000 and 2010, undergraduate enrollment at U.S. colleges increased by 37 percent. As demand rose, so did the price: from 2000 to 2016, the average annual cost of college more than doubled, from around $15,000 a year to nearly $32,000. Over the past 20 years, only two other goods or services have risen as much as college. One is hospital services; the other is college textbooks.
Since 1985, college costs have risen four times faster than the Consumer Price Index. Why? There are a number of reasons. One has to do with what economists call Baumol’s cost disease. That’s what happens when salaries rise — in this case, the salaries of college administrators and faculty and staff — without a commensurate rise in productivity. You also see this in the performing arts — and in hospital services, by the way. Even though there’s a lot of technology in hospitals, and in colleges, they still require a lot of real people spending a lot of real hours to get the work done. It’s not like manufacturing, where automation creates efficiencies. It’s not like software, where the millionth copy costs way less to make than the first one did.
Another reason the price of college has risen so much? Because college has become even more valuable. People with a college education have always earned more than those without; but if you look at the data from 1970, and then from 2000, and then from 2015, the earnings gap between workers with and without a college degree has become an earning chasm. And so, as Mitch Daniels said:
DANIELS: People did feel they had to have what it was selling, and they could charge almost anything they felt like.
Did the quality of the product rise along with the price?
DANIELS: The absence of any real objective way to measure what students are learning — are they growing intellectually? — in fact, we have some evidence that says are not growing very much. But in the absence of any proof of quality, people have come to associate sticker price with quality. If it costs more, it must be better.
It also helped that the federal government, and others, were more than happy to lend money for college.
DANIELS: We know empirically — it’s no longer somebody’s theory — that flooding the marketplace with third-party subsidies — grants and loans and so forth — enabled higher ed to keep raising its prices. The New York Fed is the most recent of many to identify this phenomenon. And basically they find that for every dollar of new public subsidy, colleges have raised their price between 60 and 70 cents.
So as demand for college was rising, and costs were rising, and loans were rising, you know what else has been rising, don’t you? Student debt. It is hard to overstate the magnitude, and the severity, of the college-debt load in the U.S. Roughly 45 million people have student-loan debt, totaling $1.5 trillion. Of those who graduate from a public, four-year university, nearly 60 percent have debt, with an average of more than $27,000. And those are the graduates: roughly 40 percent of students at those schools don’t graduate within 6 years.
DANIELS: And student debt — it doesn’t matter whether the student gets a job, gets a good job, succeeds or doesn’t. The bill is there, and it’s going to compound — the interest is going to grow over time. There’s no getting out of it, even in bankruptcy. And you can see the consequences in individual lives, and now you can see the big consequences for us all, because young people are postponing buying houses or postponing forming families, postponing having children, they’re building or starting fewer businesses than they used to. Bad deal all around.
There’s a lot of data to back up what Daniels is claiming here, that tuition debt is a huge drag on the economy overall. The Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell told the Senate Banking Committee last year that student-loan debt quote, “absolutely could hold back growth.” Some politicians are proposing a fairly radical solution. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts who’s running for president:
Elizabeth WARREN: That’s why I’m calling for universal free college and the cancellation of student loan debt of up to $50,000 for 42 million Americans.
Should college be universally free? Some countries do provide that. Should all college debt be forgiven? Warren’s plan calls for taxing the ultra-wealthy to come up with the money. But let’s assume that, near-term at least, college won’t become universally free and college debt won’t be universally forgiven. In the meantime: what can, or should, be done to make college more affordable?
DANIELS: There had been 36 consecutive years of increases here, as at virtually every other school, and some of those were not small.
Mitch Daniels became president of Purdue in 2013. One of the first things he proposed was a tuition freeze.
DANIELS: At the outset, all I imagined we might do is take a one-year time- out.
How was that suggestion received? Daniels’s previous job, remember, was governor of Indiana.
DANIELS: I remember saying, I think probably too sarcastically, to folks here, “You know, I just landed here on Mars. But back on Earth they are becoming really concerned about the high price of what we’re doing here.” And when I suggested maybe just a one-year pause, there were those among the enrollment professionals here who very genuinely said, “Oh my gosh, if we stand still while everyone else goes up again, people will think we don’t have confidence in the quality of our product.” And I said, “I just don’t think that’s how the Earthlings are looking at all this.” So we did it.
And they did it beyond that one year; tuition at Purdue has been frozen at least through the 2021 school year. The cost of room and board was also cut, by five percent.
DANIELS: And so the all-in cost, in nominal dollars, of attending our school in 2021 will be less than it was in 2012. And that’s not the economic model that most schools have pursued, but it’s been working out well for us, and we’ll continue operating on that philosophy the best we can.
How has Purdue managed to cut its price? Not by drawing down a lot more government money.
DANIELS: Our support from the state has been more or less flat.
No, the Daniels solution lay primarily in cost-cutting — the same kind of cost-cutting he practiced as governor of Indiana. On his first day as governor, in 2005, Daniels established an Office of Management and Budget, or O.M.B., the same agency he’d run for the federal government. Indiana at the time had an $800 million budget deficit. Daniels preached efficiency and reform at every turn. He cut the state workforce and consolidated agencies. He created public-private partnerships to run highways and prisons. He repealed collective bargaining, decertified the public-employee unions, and made Indiana a right-to-work state. In other words: textbook fiscal-conservative moves. On balance, Daniels was incredibly popular — he even won awards for his wildlife conservation efforts — and John Kasich called him “the Michael Jordan of governors.”
Now he’s being called, by the Wall Street Journal, “America’s most innovative university president” for making similar moves at Purdue. He’s trimmed the budget of some big capital projects, and killed off other projects entirely. He privatized the university’s bus service. He replaced cafeteria employees with student workers, and he sent out furniture for repair rather than buying new furniture.
Some Purdue faculty and staff have complained about the cost-cutting: they say their compensation and benefits are being curtailed; they say departments increasingly compete against one another for resources; they say Daniels’s pursuit of corporate partnerships — like a textbook deal with Amazon — is not good for the university. Also controversial was Purdue’s recent acquisition of the online, for-profit Kaplan University — now called Purdue University Global, which delivered 30,000 new paying customers. Some Purdue professors worried this would tarnish their brand and spread the university too thin. Mitch Daniels argues that his combination of cost-cutting and a growth mindset is working out just fine.
DANIELS: We have grown our faculty actually faster than the student body. And we have one of the best ratios in America of faculty to students.
DUBNER: What about median wage of faculty, though, along with that growth?
DANIELS: Yeah, they’re very competitive. In fact, across the spectrum of professors — assistant, associate, and full — seven, nine, and thirteen percent above the nearest Big Ten school. And we have not shifted to less-expensive or contingent or temporary faculty. We have the highest percentage of our faculty who are so-called tenure track among American research universities.
DUBNER: Your own compensation at Purdue includes performance goals: And last year, you hit all the goals, so congratulations, and therefore received a bonus of, I’m reading, $210,000 on top of a base salary of $430k, for a total of about $640k, which is a nice salary — hardly extravagant by college-president standards, we should say. Meanwhile, the head football coach at Purdue earned around $3.8 million last year, and his team won only six games against seven losses. So to me, it sounds like you had a better year than the football coach did, to say nothing of the fact he’s only running a football team and you run the entire university. How do you feel about that construct?
DANIELS: I’m fine. I’m remembering when they asked Babe Ruth, didn’t he think it was scandalous he was paid two or three times the president of the United States? He was like, well, he had a better year. No, it’s the world we’re in. You know, life’s been kind. My family is provided for. I didn’t come here for the money. Without putting a fine point on it, if money was my object, I had other options.
Under Daniels, Purdue’s alumni donations, student retention rates, and graduation rates are all way up. And so are applications: they’ve risen from 31,000 a year to 53,000 during his tenure. Interestingly, this has happened during a recent decline in college enrollment in the U.S. Earlier, I told you that college enrollment rose 37 percent between 2000 and 2010. But from 2010 to 2016, it’s down 7 percent.
How should this decline be interpreted? You might say that we simply hit peak college a few years ago: the boom came up against its ceiling. Or: you might say the price of college has simply become prohibitive for too many people, or that would-be students — and their parents — are scared off by the horror stories about life-long college debt.
But you should also consider this fact: college enrollment tends to be correlated with the employment rate. When there are a lot of jobs available, some people skip college to take those jobs. And the employment scenario has improved in recent years. So that could also help explain the overall drop in demand for college.
This drop in demand is already affecting the supply side: college closures, while still rare, have been rising; some larger university systems, like the University of Wisconsin, are consolidating their campuses. For-profit colleges are particularly prone to suffer from less demand, and their numbers have decreased over the past several years. But a prestigious private college or a big public research university like Purdue? They are still seeing historically high demand. Some students, and their parents, are so eager to get into college that they’ll pay bribes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and pretend they play water polo.
So what does all this mean for the future of college tuition, and for long-term debt? More and more elite schools with huge endowments are offering free tuition for anyone whose family can’t afford it; but that covers a relatively tiny portion of the college population. So yes, Purdue makes news by freezing its tuition for several years but it still charges Indiana residents around $20,000 a year for tuition plus room and board; non-residents pay nearly $39,000 and international students pay over $41,000. And so, Mitch Daniels and Purdue are trying something much more radical than a tuition freeze.
* * *
Mitch Daniels grew up mostly in Indianapolis; he studied public policy and law at Princeton and Georgetown, respectively, and went on to work in the federal government under Presidents Reagan and Bush (the Younger). He was also a pharmaceutical executive and was C.E.O. of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. Since 2013, Daniels has been the president of Purdue University, where he froze the price of tuition and cut the cost of room and board. That alone is enough to make him an outlier in the college-pricing market. But there’s more.
DUBNER: One program at Purdue that you’ve instituted that I’m really interested in — I think everybody would be interested in — is what’s called Back-a-Boiler — the Purdue Boilermakers is the mascot. It’s an income-share agreement in which, if I understand correctly, students can defer some or all, I’m not sure, tuition payment in favor of repaying Purdue a share of their later income.
DANIELS: You have the essence right. It’s not a deferral of tuition — Purdue gets paid, but instead of the check coming from the federal government in a loan, it comes from an investment fund we participate in, but so did other foundations and now some private investors. And think of it as equity, not debt. So the student doesn’t borrow the money. The risk shifts from the student to the investor. If things don’t work out well, it’s the investor, or the investment fund, that’s on the hook. Quite the opposite of student debt.
So an income-share agreement, I first saw it in an essay by Milton Friedman from 50, 60 years ago. It’s not a complete replacement, but it’s a better option, certainly, than the private loans that many students have to take on. There’s a lid on how much of heavily federally subsidized loans a student can take, and when they need more, they sometimes wind up with these pretty expensive debt instruments. So I talk about this as working your way through college after college. And if it doesn’t work out, again, you’re not on the hook.
Just so the audience will understand, a typical one — and it would vary with what the students study — but a chemical engineer from Purdue University would pay about two and a half percent of income for maybe six or seven years. Somebody who studied let’s say psychology, it might be four or five percent of income, whatever that income is.
DUBNER: And just to be clear, that’s because a psychologist is making a lot less than a chemical engineer, correct?
DANIELS: Likely to make less.
DUBNER: Now let me ask you this, from the investors’ perspective: let’s say I’m invested in the fund that is funding this Back-a-Boiler program. To what degree can I hand-pick the students that I’m investing in? Can I buy a tranche of just the chemical-engineering students, or do I have to have the psychology and history students in there, too?
DANIELS: You can’t cherry pick, the way we’re doing it. You know, if this thing becomes a broad national movement, there will be all kinds of ways others might approach it. We’re in our third year now, getting close to 1,000 students total, and beginning to accumulate some experience. But from the beginning, almost every discipline we teach here, all the way across the liberal arts, health sciences, as well as our biggest fields, which are engineering and computer science and the so-called S.T.E.M. disciplines — still early days, but the repayment history is very good for all of them. And we have consumer protections — some of our graduates are going to hit the jackpot early. They’re going to do so well — it happens every year — they’re going to get promoted two or three times. There’s a top cap beyond which you’re not required to—
DUBNER: It’s two-and-a-half times the initial outlay — is that right?
DANIELS: Two-and-a-half times what was invested. You know, sometimes people who either haven’t understood or don’t want to understand this concept have thrown around terms like “indentured servitude,” which makes me laugh because it’s the opposite of that. I mean, if you want indentured servitude, go get a government loan — you can’t escape it. In this case, what you can see is an affordable percentage, low percentage, of whatever your income is. And that’s it. You know, the real thing that we hope to happen here is that this movement will spread. Got a lot of other schools starting to get interested in it, because they see it’d be better for their students.
There are indeed a lot of other schools — and startups, by the way — looking into income-share agreements, or I.S.A.’s, as a way to rewrite the college-tuition equation.
Kristine BREDEMEIER: One of the beauties of an I.S.A. is that you’re aligning interest with a student.
Kristine Bredemeier is head of admissions and enrollment at the Holberton School. That’s a for-profit software-engineering college that opened in 2016 in San Francisco; it’s now got a few other campuses.
BREDEMEIER: The school is free until — and only if — the students find a job that is over $40,000. And once they do find a job that is paying them a nice salary — typically our students are earning over $100,000 as their first full-time software-engineering position — it is 17 percent of your income for three-and-a-half years.
How does Holberton cover the costs of running a school if they’re not taking in tuition? Partly through private investors, like any startup; but also through $2 million in investments drawn from Edly, an online marketplace for income-share agreements.
BREDEMEIER: So, I think the easiest way to think about Edly is, it’s like the NASDAQ, although you’re not investing in companies or corporations, you’re investing in human potential. Investors only see a return on their money when a student is successful. The same goes for us. So everyone is playing the same game. We want our students to actually find successful jobs.
Holberton’s founders were also interested in diversifying the tech world. In that regard, offering free tuition is useful.
BREDEMEIER: So it’s giving a lot more people access to quality education. We have over 60 percent people of color, 30 percent-plus women. We have a lot of college dropouts. We have teachers and artists. A lot of musicians. Over 40 percent of our students are first-generation post-secondary students. And 30 percent of our students, English is not the main language spoken at home.
Holberton says that all of their first 105 graduates are employed, and that all of them are paying their Holberton dues as scheduled.
BREDEMEIER: If our students are not getting jobs, then we don’t get paid and we close as a school. And I think colleges — that’s what they set out to be originally, was to help get students into careers.
Another career-building school with free tuition is Lambda, an online-learning startup backed by Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator, among others. Lambda offers programs in fields like data science and UX design at no charge, with Lambda getting 17 percent of a graduate’s salary for two years, as long as they get a job paying more than $50,000, with payments capped at $30,000.
So, yes, there seems to be momentum for the private, for-profit model of an income-sharing agreement. But what about the traditional non-profit college model — and what role can or should government play? The Obama administration pushed to make federal loans cheaper, and put an interest-rate cap on loan payments. But other countries have gone much, much, much further. Australia, for instance, has for decades offered free tuition, letting graduates pay back the government once they’re employed — with the payments collected through the federal tax system.
That’s a very tidy system, especially if most of the universities are state-run, as they are in Australia. There was, however, one big loophole: what if an Australian graduates from college and then moves abroad to work? Aren’t they stealing a free education from everyone else who stays behind and pays back their tuition? Australia only managed to close this loophole in 2016, after more than 25 years of expatriate Aussies not paying their government.
I wondered about a similar loophole when we had Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo on our show last year. She had just made community college in Rhode Island tuition-free. That led me to ask her this:
DUBNER: What kind of residency requirement is there afterwards? If I get a free community-college degree from you and then I move immediately to Massachusetts or California, do I have to pay you back?
Gina RAIMONDO: We ask them to make a pledge that they’ll stick around for a couple of years. So yes, the deal is, you have to go full-time, because we want people to graduate. You have to keep up a minimum grade-point average, can’t get into trouble, got to be in academic good standing. And we want you to live in Rhode Island for at least two years after you graduate.
Raimondo may want them to live there — so that Rhode Island recaptures the tuition funding through state income taxes. But: Rhode Island currently imposes no penalty if a student gets the free tuition and moves away — the Australia loophole.
In New York State, meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo is not taking any chances. His plan to offer free college to qualifying families requires graduates to stay in New York for at least as many years as they received free tuition. Otherwise, their tuition bill will be converted into a no-interest loan that would have to be repaid.
You can see why this sort of plan — free college education, with repayment through the tax system — why it’d be easier at the federal level, with the I.R.S. doing the collecting. In fact, a friend of mine is currently trying to design such a system, and he’s gathering allies from the education, financial, and political communities. So if you are a high-ranking elected official, Democrat or Republican, and you want to hear more from my friend and his allies, drop me an e-mail, email@example.com, and I’ll hook you up.
My friend, like many others who are trying to think creatively about the college-tuition debt problem, recognizes that the current system is unsustainable, and that it could be really damaging to our long-term economy and to our society. But a smart solution will require a lot more political will than would seem to be available at the moment, especially at the federal level. I wondered about this as I was speaking with Mitch Daniels — because he’s a pretty willful person, and he had a successful career in politics. So I was curious to ask him about that too.
DUBNER: So as I read what you’ve written over the years, and what’s been written about you, it seems that the central theme of your political philosophy is fiscal responsibility. Would you essentially agree with that?
DANIELS: To me, it’s a prerequisite for everything else. It’s an essential stewardship assignment. No matter what your philosophy of government — we can have, and should have good, honest differences about the size and scope, how big the sphere of government should be. But within that, there’s two things we have to agree on. One is, you’ve got to pay your bills, not hand them on to your successors and to succeeding generations. And secondly, whatever government is doing, it ought to try to do it well, which is another badly neglected assignment.
DUBNER: Well, let’s talk about spending. So, we know your position generally. Let me ask you about your term at the O.M.B. under President Bush. Because spending, in that case, increased. You left that job to run for governor of Indiana. When you left, here’s what the Democratic spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee said: “By O.M.B.’s own estimates, Daniels” — you — “has presided over an era which has seen a projected $5.6 trillion surplus in 2001” — the end of the Clinton era — “turn into a $2.2 trillion projected deficit today. In short, Mitch Daniels is the clown that turned our fiscal house upside down.” So that would not seem to match at all the fellow known as “the Blade” for his budget-cutting instincts. How do you respond to that charge, that you come in talking about being fiscally conservative and careful and leave with a greater deficit?
DANIELS: Well, there may be one syllable of that statement that’s true, but I couldn’t find it. First of all, the projections were there, and the error I made — but so did everybody else, including Alan Greenspan, and everybody in Congress — was to imagine that the happy circumstance — I mean, the first year we were there, we paid off some debt — the happy confluence of a reasonably-moderate Democratic president and a Republican House produced a better fiscal situation.
But there was a huge bubble. The stock market broke, and the federal government was enjoying a gusher of temporary revenues from capital gains, income tax based on options and so forth. And those projections were never going to come true. And history is clear on that. So it took a little while for everybody to figure that out. But that was a fictional surplus.
Secondly, I never had a single conversation or debate with the House Appropriations Committee or the Congress, frankly, both parties, where they were for less spending than I was, ever. There were some circumstantial changes — there was that little thing called 9/11, followed by the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. And that required some spending that everybody agreed on. But it wasn’t forecast before.
You know, I went to the National Press Club not too long after that happened, and I talked about what Harry Truman did when he decided we had to engage in the Korean conflict. And what Franklin Roosevelt had suggested doing — namely, if you have to spend money on national security, emergencies, you stop spending money elsewhere. Congress didn’t buy it.
DUBNER: Well, let me ask you this. You were in charge of creating a forecast for the cost of a potential war in Iraq. And as I’ve read, you’ve put that number in the roughly $60 billion range. The ultimate cost was actually in the $800 billion range, just Iraq.
DANIELS: I’m glad you brought it up, because there have been some misunderstanding, and occasionally some very big misrepresentations of that.
DUBNER: I’ll let you answer, and I want to get any corrections, but really the larger question I want to ask is this: it strikes me that a lot of U.S. policy — tax policy, spending policy, and so on — is a result of these sort of accidents of history. Wars often, whether preventable or not — I think back to World War II and how that changed, for many, many, many, many years, tax policy in the U.S. It also changed, for many, many, many years, continuing to this day, the way our health insurance is set up — connected to employers, which was not the case in most other countries, and was not the case here, as I understand it, before World War II.
So, I guess what I’m asking is, it’s a little bit like the famous Mike Tyson quote: “Everybody’s got a plan until you get punched in the mouth.” And I’m curious to hear your assessment of how your plan stands up in a world where these things do happen and throw all the plans out the window.
DANIELS: Well, that’s a great question. Let’s go back to the front end, just get that taken care of. When the president made the decision to go to Iraq — this wasn’t in anybody’s budget. So there had to be what is called a supplemental appropriation bill. Congress loves these, by the way, because they generally become an opportunity to serve as the Christmas tree — you can put other things on there. It was a supplemental appropriation for a specified period of time. The question was, how much will it cost to defeat the Iraqi army and to stay for six months? In the naivete of the planners, the thought was, that’s all you’d have to be there. You’d win the war, stabilize the situation, turn it over to somebody, and leave.
Now, O.M.B. is not war planners. We didn’t decide to go to war. We didn’t plan the war. But someone having done that, our job was to produce the best estimate we could to answer that question. It turned out to be pretty darn accurate — in fact, I think it cost a little less than that. If someone had asked, “What will it cost to beat the Iraqi army and stay for 10 or 15 years?” you would have gotten a very different answer.
I argued during the time at O.M.B. that natural disasters are going to happen. We have history. And now, Congress doesn’t fund those. I said, “Why don’t we, every year, fund what looks to be an average amount of cost for taking care of floods and hurricanes and the sorts of things that happen?” But nobody wanted to do that. It’s a lot more fun to wait ‘til it happens. Then you can have a supplemental bill — and you can buy all kinds of other things you want to buy and couldn’t get in the regular budget.
DUBNER: Colleges and universities in the U.S. are famously liberal, at least in terms of political identification among faculty, let’s say. So, one study of more than 7,000 professors from 40 leading U.S. universities found a Democratic-to-Republican ratio of 11.5 to one. In some disciplines, it’s less — economics is less, law is less — but in others it was much higher. In journalism, it’s 20 to one, in history it’s 33-and-a-half Democratic to one Republican. Obviously, you are a Republican.
You are a university president. I realize that Purdue and Indiana are generally more conservative than a lot of other parts of the country, but still, I’m curious what you think this says about the state of universities generally, and what can or should be done about it.
DANIELS: Well, first of all, I’m not a Republican, I’m a, really, since the middle of 2012, the day I accepted this job, I said I would forswear any partisan activity out of respect for the place, and I’ve maintained that. But those ratios — how did it happen? Well, there has probably always been a leftist tilt in the academy. I can remember a French intellectual — this is 25 years ago now — saying Marxism is so discredited over there, where they’ve seen it close up. He said, “When we need a Marxist, now we have to import one from an American university.” So there’s nothing new about that.
I think it’s a self-selection process, people probably pick people more like themselves. Meanwhile, I think a lot of folks deselect — they just say, “I wouldn’t be comfortable there, I’d be isolated or ostracized.” So you do that for two or three generations, you’re probably going to get where we’ve gotten.
But I think young people, by and large, they’ve got pretty good B.S. detectors. And I think they can, over time, figure out if they’re being force-fed or not offered a range of facts and opinions to consider.
But here’s the real problem: as a lot of recent books have pointed out, the advance of knowledge — forget politics and ideology for a minute — the advance of knowledge requires the collision of ideas. And that’s what’s beginning to trouble, I think, even people of more liberal or leftist persuasion. Where you get this complete homogeneity, this just dreary conformity. And then the free inquiry stops being the driver of new discoveries and ideas.
DUBNER: Well, let me ask you this. In your book, Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans, you wrote the following: “Large majorities of Americans are clueless about their own history and the history of past fallen empires, encouraged on every side to think of themselves as victims of an unfair system and their country as nothing special. They react to economic adversity not with a bootstraps resolve, but with self-pity and a search for villains.”
So let’s assume none of us are fans of self-pity or even a search for villains. I’m curious the extent to which you think that a bootstraps resolve is really enough to succeed in the modern American economy. Because it strikes me that the political discontent of voters on the right and left argue against that — in other words, your assessment could read as though people have just gotten lazy, taken too much for granted. But the fact that that situation exists means the solution would not seem to just say to people, “Hey, change what you’re doing.”
In other words, is a political solution of the sort that you propose really possible given our track record?
DANIELS: Maybe not. First of all, that book was resolutely optimistic about the character and the readiness for self-government of the American people. I talked about the fact that there are a lot of people peddling victimization and self-pity, and you say, let’s assume nobody is a fan of that — well, there are fans of that and there are advocates for that, who make careers of it. If you look back at the birth of this country, it was the birth of self-government.
But the first requirement of self-government is to be able to govern oneself. That is, if you want to live in a country that is free, where people come together and decide about their common future, it presupposes that people have some measure of autonomy and are happy about that, and want to live their own lives. I continue to believe that there’s still plenty enough of that in the American character that we can come together, as we’re going to need to at some point, and address problems like our national debt and make some mature decisions that place tomorrow ahead of today.
DUBNER: I guess when I hear you say that, I think that there will always be a certain segment of any population that’s willing and able to do that, but it seems as though every population is majority-ruled by people, when left to their nature, their instincts, or the incentives that are presented to them, that absolutely will not engage in long term-ism. Including, I should say, roughly 534 or 5 people in D.C. So I’m curious whether that optimism that you expressed, do you still feel it, having seen the political climate in the last seven or eight years?
DANIELS: I confess I’m a little shakier about it today. You know, we’ve been lucky enough — most of us — to live all our lives under conditions of freedom. But we are — I mentioned in the book, I tripped over the fact that on some of the original coinage of the American republic, there was the Latin phrase “Exitus in Dubio Est.” “The outcome is still in doubt.” At the very beginning, people said, “Boy, this experiment in governing ourselves is really unproven, and it might not last.”
DUBNER: Apparently you thought medium-hard, maybe really hard, about running for President of the United States in 2012, and perhaps again 2016. And you had quite a bit of support, including in the punditocracy — of course, it’s easy to support people who aren’t running, it’s free. Why didn’t you run, on either occasion?
DANIELS: Well, ’16 is easy to answer. As I tell people here at Purdue, I held out and got a better job.
DUBNER: And you could still get called president, too.
DANIELS: Sometimes I’ll say, “Look, at this point in life, I’m not taking the demotion.” But 2011 was different. I didn’t take it seriously for a long time. A stunning array and number of people said they thought it was a good idea. So I did take a little while and think hard about it.
But at the end of the day, my family was — which has five women in it — when they are unanimous on something, they are formidable group. They were very uncomfortable with it. They had seen public life, not just at the state, but at the national level. They knew what it was about. They had young families forming, and they just didn’t feel that they wanted to spend the next several years in that.
One of my friends said, “You know, you got a fatal problem in this whole presidential thing.” And I said, “Well, probably a lot of them. Which one are you talking about?” And he said, “You can live without it.” And you know what? One almost has to be fully possessed with the idea — as I told people at the time, I don’t ever remember looking in the shaving mirror and seeing a President of the United States staring back. But the other thing, I mean, a father of four daughters has no good answer to the statement, “Daddy, please don’t.”
DUBNER: Let me just ask you, finally: the Trump presidency has been unusual on a lot of dimensions. Knowing what I’ve gleaned about you, I’m guessing that a lot of his policy directives and instincts are in line with what you like. Knowing what I know about you, also, however, I’m guessing that a lot of the conduct is not to your liking. So I’m curious whether that reading is accurate, or rather, I should probably just shut up and let you tell me a little bit about what you think of the president and the presidency thus far.
DANIELS: I’m the one that should shut up about — you’ve already gotten me to say more about things political than I generally do or wish to. Again, this is a public university. And I have taken very seriously the vow, I always say, vow of political celibacy that I took years ago.
I’ll confess to you that it has its pluses, especially in an era as contentious as this one, where folks get so riled up on both sides, it’s awfully nice to be neutered. Not too long after 2012, after I said I would come to this job, it was — I think it’s fair to say — a disappointment to allies in the party, including candidate for governor Mike Pence, at the time, that I said I’m not going to go give speeches or make commercials for anybody this fall. But anyway, I got a call from a fellow governor who — it was some kind of a shoptalk call, I can’t remember exactly, but, “How would you handle this issue, I got this problem, what would you do about it?” We got done, he said, “Okay, great, thanks.” He said, “So I’ll see you in Tampa next month at the convention.” And I said, “Well, no,” and explained — and I hope the audience won’t object to the direct quote — there was a little pause and he said, “You clever bastard.” And there have been many times since when I’ve thought, this is not a bad time to be on the sidelines.
DUBNER: You found the cleverest way out, didn’t you?
DANIELS: Well, let me just say, it worked out well for me and my family.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Harry Huggins. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Zack Lapinski, and Corinne Wallace. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University and former White House advisor and governor of Indiana.
- Kristine Bredemeier, head of admissions and enrollment at the Holberton School.
- “The Outlook is Dim for Americans Without College Degrees,” (The Economist, 2019).
- “Credit Supply and the Rise in College Tuition: Evidence from the Expansion in Federal Student Aid Programs,” by David O. Lucca, Taylor Nadauld, and Karen Shen (Federal Reserve Bank of New York Staff Reports, 2017).
- Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System March 2019 Consumer Credit Report.
- “Student Loan Debt Crisis is About to Get Worse,” by Riley Griffin, Suborna Panja, and Kristina D’Alessio (AP News, 2018).
- “College Bloat Meets ‘The Blade’,” by Tunku Varadarajan (Wall Street Journal, 2019).
- Purdue University Undergraduate Admissions Freshman Class Profile for Fall 2018.
- National Center for Education Statistics May 2018 Undergraduate Enrollment Report.
- “Graduates Who Move Overseas to be Forced to Pay Back Student Debts,” by Shalailah Medhora (The Guardian, 2015).
- “Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology,” by Mitchell Langbert, Anthony J. Quain, and Daniel B. Klein (Econ Journal Watch, 2016).
- Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans by Mitch Daniels.
The post The $1.5 Trillion Question: How to Fix Student-Loan Debt? (Ep. 377) appeared first on Freakonomics.[ + ]
Thu, 02 May 2019 03:00:04 +0000
The $1.5 Trillion Question: How to Fix Student-Loan Debt? (Ep. 377)
Humans have been having kids forever, so why are modern parents so bewildered? The economist Emily Oster marshals the evidence on the most contentious topics — breastfeeding and sleep training, vaccines and screen time — and tells her fellow parents to calm the heck down.
* * *
Have you ever had a question about how Freakonomics Radio gets made? If so, we want to hear from you — any question at all, about how we choose our topics, why we interview who we do, how the whole process works. Stephen J. Dubner will be sitting down to answer your questions with Alison Craiglow, our executive producer, for a series of episodes called “The Hidden Side of Freakonomics Radio,” which we’ll put out on Stitcher Premium. That’s the subscription service where you can listen to our entire archive ad-free and hear bonus material like this. To submit a question, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line “Hidden Side.”
* * *
If you’ve ever had a child, or ever been a child, you know there’s a lot of parenting advice out there. Much of which is not very nuanced.
Emily OSTER: No one’s in the middle. People are yelling. The first person is like, “Well, I did that, and my kid’s amazing.” And then someone will be like, “Well, actually, if you do that, there’s a very good chance your baby will die, and only someone who hates their baby would do that.”
Some parenting decisions are controversial, and we hear about them all the time:
OSTER: Vaccines do not cause autism. We have a tremendous amount of data showing that that is not true.
But there are many other decisions that don’t get much scrutiny.
OSTER: And the guidelines seemed really arbitrary.
Like the restrictions on certain foods during pregnancy — and alcohol and caffeine. Whether or not to let the baby “cry it out.” And the long-term effects of: day care; of screen time; of eating nothing but buttered noodles for the first 10 years of life. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone out there could cut through the dogma and the old wives’ tales and use data to help parents make decisions?
OSTER: And so I really started digging into, “Well actually, what should we do here?”
* * *
We’re speaking today with Emily Oster.
OSTER: I am a professor of economics and public affairs at Brown University.
DUBNER: You’re also, we should say, married to another Brown economist, Jesse Shapiro, yes?
OSTER: Yes, I am. That’s my husband.
DUBNER: We should also say your parents are also both economists.
OSTER: Yes, that’s also true.
DUBNER: Can you talk just for a second about the degree of inbreeding among economists, and whether it’s typical in the social sciences or academia writ large?
OSTER: So it’s interesting. I think a lot of female economists are married to male economists. There aren’t as many female economists, so some of the male economists are not able to marry female economists. And whether that’s as common in other academic fields, I’m not sure. But if you like it, it’s great. I think it’s pretty fun to get to do work stuff in addition to home stuff with my spouse.
A lot of Oster’s research has been related to healthcare.
OSTER: Studying people’s health behaviors and trying to understand why people don’t always behave in the ways that our economic models would suggest. So, why don’t people always seek out information about their health? Studying people who are at risk for Huntington’s Disease and why they don’t always get genetic testing. Looking at why people don’t seem to always diet when we think that they should. Or what kind of health recommendations people do or do not respond to.
What sort of tools does Oster use for this kind of research?
OSTER: There is a lot of emphasis on big data sets, using administrative data, looking at questions that can be well-answered in those data.
So several years ago, when Oster was pregnant with her first child, she naturally went looking for good data to help her make good decisions.
OSTER: And even around something like prenatal testing, trying to understand, should I have this screening test for genetic disorders, or this other screening test? The guidelines seemed really arbitrary, and to be based on age and not on anything about preferences — which is totally outside of how I think about decision-making.
And so I really started digging into like, okay, well actually, what should we do here? And what I came up with suggested some of the data was really flawed that people were using for recommendations. The recommendations didn’t even really make any sense, even given the flawed data that they were using. It isn’t like there’s some secret repository of knowledge about babies that you’re missing out on.
Oster went back and started reading the underlying studies that contribute to the conventional wisdom on pregnancy and child-rearing. She found that a lot of the studies were built around small sample sizes or incomplete data. A lot of the analysis didn’t control for things like income and education level. Consider, for instance, one of the most controversial topics of early motherhood: breastfeeding.
OSTER: So higher-income women, particularly in the U.S., women with more education, they’re more likely to breastfeed. And so if later you look, and their kids are doing better in school or are thinner — those are things which are also correlated with parental education or parental income, with resources, that the family has. And so it’s really hard to learn from that comparison about the real causal relationships. And that comes up all the time — not just in breastfeeding, in everything.
So Oster read the breastfeeding studies, including one that was based on a large randomized trial. What’d she conclude?
OSTER: There are some small but not zero benefits in the short run, particularly around improving digestive health, lowering episodes of diarrhea, and maybe some evidence that it lowers rates of ear infections in the first year of life. But many of these claims that people make — breastfeeding is going to give your kid an I.Q. bump, breastfeeding is going to make your kid thin, it’s going to prevent allergies or asthma later — these things are just not supported in the data.
To say something is “not supported in the data” doesn’t mean it’s not true. Just that when people say it is true, their argument is more likely to be based on some sort of wish, or belief, as opposed to scientific evidence. Oster did find some compelling evidence about breastfeeding, but not as a benefit to the baby.
OSTER: Yes, so this is the one long-term effect where it looks like maybe we have some good evidence, it suggests that it may actually lower breast cancer risks for the mother.
DUBNER: What’s the mechanism for that?
OSTER: Mechanisms are always hard, but in this case, I think we have some sense that it changes some of the composition of the cells in the breast in a way that may help protect against breast cancer.
DUBNER: Okay. How real is nipple confusion? The idea that if you feed your baby with a bottle, it will get used to that nipple and then be confused if you try to breastfeed later?
OSTER: Nipple confusion is made up. So, particularly around something like pacifiers — you don’t give your kid a pacifier because they won’t nurse — there is just no evidence for that.
DUBNER: So even a not-very-brain-developed baby—
OSTER: —is able to differentiate between a breast and a pacifier. That’s right. Amazing.
DUBNER: Okay, what about dietary restrictions for a breastfeeding mother?
OSTER: Mostly none. And the question people ask me all the time is like, “Is it okay to drink while I am breastfeeding?” And the answer is, not like a sailor, but some, yes. Totally fine. The concentrations are very low in breast milk. Caffeine, fine. Some babies are very sensitive to some things like caffeine, so if you find that you drink a cup of coffee and you nurse your kid and they get totally crazy, then you may need to adjust.
DUBNER: What about medication, especially antidepressants?
OSTER: Antidepressants do pass through breast milk to the baby. And so this is something that women have to talk to their doctors about. But in general, many antidepressants are safe for use, and also postpartum depression is a very significant issue. And if you need treatment, you need treatment. And that is something that should be paramount.
DUBNER: So, on balance, the benefits of breastfeeding are what?
OSTER: I think you want to imagine that there are some small benefits to breastfeeding in the short term, and those may be enough to try. And also I should say a lot of women enjoy breastfeeding, and they find it to be a nice way to bond with their infant, and that is of course a great reason to do it.
I think the thing that is too bad and is not great is when people sort of build up breastfeeding in their mind as like, “This is the only way to give my baby the best start. And if I don’t do this, that’s giving them a bad start.” And that just isn’t true.
As Oster sees it, one big problem with parenting is that many of the conversations instantly devolve into a level of partisanship that can make our political discourse seem courtly.
OSTER: For me, the thing that really encapsulates this is the Facebook conversations. Somebody will ask a question like, “My three-week-old baby is not sleeping well, and I’m thinking about keeping them in the bed with me, what do you ladies think about this?”
Pretty soon, the shouting starts.
OSTER And then somebody will be like, “Okay, we have to shut down this post because this is too much.” And some of what I try to do is push against that, and say, you could each make different choices and they could both be right. And just because it’s not the same choice doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Economists believe in preferences — and they also believe it’s perfectly sensible for different people to have different preferences, as long as they’re making decisions with a full knowledge of the costs and the benefits. And the knowledge that most decisions do have both costs and benefits. And yet somehow, when it comes to parenting:
OSTER: I think that there is a knee-jerk to be like, “Well, if anyone ever said that this might be dangerous, no one should ever do it, ever.” I think that there is sometimes a discomfort with facing up to evidence and also to the uncertainties that come with data, that lead doctors, medical professionals, medical organizations, to want to make more blanket statements than are always appropriate, and to be less comfortable with explaining nuance to their patients than they might otherwise be.
Oster had no such discomfort with nuance. She set out to explore the parenting terrain using data as her guide. The result has been two books. The first, published a few years ago, is called Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong — and What You Really Need to Know. The new book is called Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool. Oster appreciates that there are systemic reasons for the medical field to be cautious: remember: first, do no harm; also, there’s the threat of a malpractice suit. But Oster wanted to think about risk rationally — not as a doctor, hoping to avoid liability; or even as a parent, wanting nothing bad to ever happen to her children. Instead, she just wanted to think about risk as an economist.
OSTER: First of all, let’s interrogate a little bit whether those risks are really real, and are really significant. And then also to interrogate you have to trade off the risks maybe against some other benefits. And in something like pregnancy, you think about treating really severe nausea. There’s this “Oh, don’t take anything for that, just suffer through it.” So actually, that can be really debilitating. And it may make sense for people to take something even if we are not 1,000 percent sure that there are absolutely no risks to it, because it may outweigh some other risks. And I think we sometimes forget that.
DUBNER: And what about facing head-on risks that you’re describing as relatively small while totally ignoring other, let’s say, daily risks that are actually relatively large, like getting in a car?
OSTER: I am constantly comparing things to getting in a car, because getting in a car is very risky. And I think that there are many kinds of risks that people talk about in pregnancy and childhood which are far less risky than getting in a car, where people are like, “Oh, only somebody who’s a terrible parent would even consider doing that.” It’s like, “Well, actually, do you get in the car?”
When it comes to advising parents on risks, one problem Oster identifies is that the advisors — doctors, primarily — aren’t necessarily practiced in risk-reward calculations.
OSTER: There is relatively little training on data analysis in medical school. And now, that of course does not mean that doctors are not data-literate. Many of the doctors that I know are very data-literate and think very carefully about these kind of issues. But it is true that generally this is not a training that gets much play in medical school.
I think there are some good reasons for that — which is, there are many things about being a doctor that are about doing things correctly and understanding how the biology works, which are much more important. And you can’t teach everybody everything.
“You can’t teach everybody everything.” Fair enough. But if there’s one group of people in the world who think they can learn just about anything, it’s economists. This is a long-standing complaint among other academics and scientists and assorted smart people. The field of economics does carry an air of triumphalism; many economists feel they can contribute insights to areas that lay well outside their own expertise — areas like education, criminology, medicine.
OSTER: There’s also a lot about decision theory, and about how do you structure a decision in a way that helps you make a good choice? And that’s really economics. Developmental psychology and obstetrics and pediatrics are not sciences of decision-making. And so I think especially around the issues where you’ve got to think about what’s the best for your family, you need someone doing decision science.
There’s something to be said for this: economists have analytical tools that are useful on many topics; they’re really good at working with very large data sets; and there can be a big upside in having an outsider’s perspective on hard problems. But economists’ triumphalism — or maybe you’d call it colonialism — it also has its downsides. As Emily Oster discovered first-hand. Years ago, she was trying to understand why the ratio of males to females was so off-kilter in many places, especially Asia. Most previous explanations pointed to violence against women and girls; or the selective abortion of female fetuses; or even infanticide. Oster offered another explanation.
OSTER: I wrote a paper in graduate school which argued that parents who are carriers of the hepatitis B virus have more male children, and then this explains some gender imbalances.
The theory was that a pregnant woman with hepatitis B was much more likely to give birth to a boy than a girl — although the mechanism wasn’t clear; it could have been that female fetuses were more likely to be miscarried when exposed to the hepatitis B virus.
OSTER: And then subsequently some research came out which suggested that basic fact was not true in the data. And then I did some subsequent follow-up research, which also showed that that was not true in the data.
She had to walk back her earlier conclusion. Which had gotten a lot of attention. Including from the authors of Freakonomics. We too walked back her conclusion.
OSTER: That mistake, that error, that episode, has had a big impact on how I think about my work and how I think about the importance of being careful. And so I try to be careful.
DUBNER: Did it kind of make you feel that the whole goal of establishing causality was much harder than you used to think it was?
OSTER: Yeah, I think it taught me a little bit to be more cautious about some of the— I thought I had a really good set of causal evidence around this problem, and then it turned out not to be right. And of course, sometimes things are not right. And so I think that it did give me pause about some aspects of causality.
It is probably a good idea to take some pause about causality. Causality’s often much harder to establish than it might first appear. Especially when the data aren’t abundant. Especially when the topic is something as universal — and controversial — as parenting.
OSTER: Some kinds of things people tell you are just completely made-up, old wives’ tales — like if your belly sticks out to the front, that’s a boy. And then there are some things where it’ll be food restrictions, where the answer is the restrictions come from data, but there’s a wide variety of quality in how good the data is and how good the conclusions are.
Okay, so: let’s talk about some of these conclusions — the conventional wisdom — and how solid it is or isn’t. Let’s start with pregnancy. And perhaps the most obvious don’t from the do-and-don’t list:
OSTER: In the U.S. there is a blanket no-alcohol during pregnancy, even a small amount of alcohol can be dangerous.
And having read the underlying studies, what did Oster conclude?
OSTER: It is definitely true that drinking a lot of alcohol is very bad, and even one or two times having a large amount of alcohol can be very dangerous. But the data does not support the conclusion that occasional alcohol consumption — say, no more than a glass at a time, a few times a week — is dangerous for your baby.
DUBNER: And you made a lot of new friends by writing that, did you not?
OSTER: So many friends, yes. Not everyone was very happy with that.
The National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome called Oster’s conclusions “deeply flawed and harmful.” But Oster stands by her conclusion, and it seems as if the obstetrics community is moving in her direction.
OSTER: The truth is, about half of the obstetricians in the U.S. say that they tell their patients it’s fine to have an occasional glass of wine. And so my guess is that more people listened to that after reading my book than before.
DUBNER: What about caffeine?
OSTER: So, caffeine, again, the restrictions are very, very stringent. And I think some people take that to mean none, no caffeine. The truth is, there’s certainly no evidence that having two cups of coffee a day is dangerous. And there really isn’t much evidence that going up to, say, three or four cups a day, has any negative impact either. When you get into eight cups a day, that data is a little more complicated.
DUBNER: There is a long list of foods that some pregnant women avoid.
OSTER: Yes. No deli meats, no soft cheeses, no sushi, etc. There are a few things that you should avoid. Probably deli turkey, things that sit around in a steam table, not so good. Probably unpasteurized soft cheese, also worth avoiding. But many of these things — sushi, ham — that are on the restricted list, most women are likely to look at the evidence and think it’s actually fine.
DUBNER: And why deli turkey but not other deli meats?
OSTER: Deli turkey is more likely to harbor listeria than other deli meats.
DUBNER: And then talk about smoking and nicotine. I want you to handle them separately, if known. Smoking, it sounds as though it’s pretty indisputably bad.
OSTER: Smoking is bad. Smoking is particularly bad for birthweight, and the evidence for that is pretty good.
DUBNER: And we should say, low birthweight is a very good proxy for baby health generally, yes?
OSTER: Yes. It is generally the good proxy we use for that.
DUBNER: But then, what do you know about nicotine? Because obviously there are other ways to deliver nicotine, and there are those who argue that nicotine itself is actually a pretty nifty drug, in moderation.
OSTER: Yeah, I think the issue is, we don’t actually know that much about how should we think about nicotine-replacement therapy as relative to cigarettes — or e-cigarettes relative to cigarettes. Is just hasn’t been studied much.
Note to self: that would be a good topic for another episode — the risks of nicotine itself — now that vaping has become so popular. Anyway: back to the risks, and alleged risks, surrounding pregnancy and childbirth. One of the most controversial topics around childbirth is C-section versus vaginal delivery.
OSTER: Yes. And I think what we know there is that basically in the short run, the recovery from a vaginal delivery is on average a bit easier than a C-section, so women tend to be up and about a few weeks faster. In the long run, actually, recovery is very similar.
It is also true, though, that for later deliveries, having had an earlier C-section can increase some complications. So, people sometimes ask, “Well, is there really any downside to having a C-section?” I think the answer depends a lot on whether you want to have more kids. If you want to have more kids, the downsides are more salient than if you’re done.
DUBNER: And what about outcome on the babies, whether cognitive, physiological, whatever?
OSTER: We just don’t have any evidence suggesting there’s any differences in outcomes at all. People say things like, “It’s important to have the microbiome, and you have to rub the vaginal secretions on the baby.” We just don’t have any evidence that that works or not.
DUBNER: And when you say we don’t have any evidence, meaning there’s not enough evidence really to think clearly about it, or there is quite a bit of evidence and it just doesn’t suggest a difference?
OSTER: I think that’s an important distinction — I would say this is more in the category of, we just don’t have enough evidence. And so the evidence that we do have doesn’t suggest large differences. And in the general question, about many of the kinds of outcomes, like survival and so on, we have good evidence that it doesn’t matter. On some of these more subtle things like disease resistance, allergy, immunity, I don’t think we have great evidence.
You can start to see why so many parents, or would-be parents, get so confused by the avalanche of information coming at them. Information that’s often not very well-sourced, or that’s got an agenda attached to it; or — and this is pretty common — information that used to argue for one decision and now argues for the exact opposite. There’s a 2003 book, by Anne Hulbert, called Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children. It does a great job showing how many flip-flops there’ve been over time.
Consider, for instance, how parents today are urged to engage and intellectually stimulate their children. And there’s a lot of evidence that things like the early acquisition of language is incredibly powerful. But in the early 20th century, one of the most renowned pediatricians of his time, L. Emmett Holt, cautioned that a baby is not a “plaything” and there should be “no forcing, no pressure, no undue stimulation” during the first two years of life. Holt’s argument was that the brain was growing so vigorously during that period that overstimulation might cause “a great deal of harm.” He also believed a baby should be left to cry for 15 to 30 minutes a day. “It is the baby’s exercise,” he wrote.
* * *
Some people argue the world is in such a state that it’s irresponsible to bring any more humans into it. There’s a British movement called BirthStrike, for instance, composed primarily of women who have declared their intention to “not bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis and the current inaction of governing forces in the face of this existential threat.”
Indeed, the global fertility rate is about half of what it was in 1962, which turns out to have been the peak year for global population growth. The fertility rate is particularly low in wealthy places like Japan and many western European countries; the U.S. rate is somewhat higher. But overall, the global population continues to grow: roughly seven-and-a-half billion people today, up from less than four-and-a-half billion in 1980, 3 billion in 1960, and well under 2 billion in 1900. A few years ago, for an episode called “Why Do People Keep Having Children,” I asked Emily Oster that question.
OSTER: I think this is probably an open question for debate. I think many people would tell you that it’s the biological imperative. I think that some people would tell you, kids are enjoyable. I think some people would tell you, particularly in developing countries, people have kids as an investment in their old age or even to work on their farms when the kids are young. So, I think those are probably the leading-candidate explanations.
That, at least, is how an economist like Oster sees it. She and her husband have two kids: a daughter, Penelope, who’s 8; and a son named Finn, who’s 4.
OSTER: And they are great.
But the scarcity of data about parenting led Oster to seek out what she could find, and write it up in two books: Expecting Better, about pregnancy; and now Cribsheet, which essentially says: okay, you’ve had your baby — now what?
OSTER: I think one of the biggest challenges that we face when we parent now is the perception that if you are doing something for yourself, it must necessarily not help your baby or your small child. And I think so much of the rhetoric around this almost martyr-like approach to some aspects of parenting, it’s like, “Well, I haven’t slept in three years. But that’s because I love my baby.” And I think it should be fine to say, “Look, I don’t care if my kid doesn’t sleep because I like getting up in the middle of the night with them.” Some people will say that, I think that’s totally fine. But the idea that somehow that is the thing that makes you a good parent is something that I think we should move away from. And really, rather than thinking about somehow, all of my sacrifices are how I prove I love my kid, you could just love your kid and also sleep. That’s also fine.
DUBNER: So, babies and little kids sleep a lot. And I’m guessing that parents have many questions and confusions about the do’s and don’ts of baby sleeping. Why don’t you tell us what are some of the big issues that people have, and then how they should be thinking about it.
OSTER: The two biggest questions in sleep are where the baby should sleep and whether you should let them what is colloquially called, “cry it out,” whether you should do some sleep training with them. So, on the first question, the issue is should you let your baby sleep in your bed? And a lot of people are tempted to do that because actually many babies sleep better in the bed. And then if you need to breastfeed in the middle of the night, or do something else, it is easier to roll over and just not have to get out of bed and get on your bathrobe and go down the hall and get your baby. So that’s the plus. But there are pretty strong restrictions on, you know, you shouldn’t have your baby sleeping in the bed with you, because you could roll over them and that’s a risk factor for S.I.D.S.
S.I.D.S. stands for “sudden-infant death syndrome.”
OSTER: This is a sort of general term for the condition in which an infant dies in the crib or in the bed, without other obvious risk factors.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says babies up to one year old should sleep on their backs on a firm surface, without any pillows or bedding.
OSTER: Yes, sleeping on the back is a good idea. The Back-to-Sleep Campaign has been very good at preventing S.I.D.S.
DUBNER: Okay, now, that said, for people of a certain age, they will remember that the advice on this has flip-flopped a lot of times. How persuaded are you that sleeping on the back is the definitive good idea?
OSTER: I was pretty persuaded. I mean, I came into this sort of thinking, I wonder if this is one of these many things that is not super-supported. But actually because of these flip-flops, we actually have some pretty good evidence. So for example, you can see in places that have flip-flopped, the death rates also flip-flop, suggesting that back-sleeping is very important.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also suggests that babies sleep in the same room as the parents but not sleep in the parents’ bed.
OSTER: The degree to which that is a risk depends a lot on the other kinds of behaviors that you’re engaged in.
DUBNER: Meaning smoking and drinking primarily?
OSTER: Smoking and drinking, yes. If smoke is around that baby, that’s already compromising their respiration and because that kind of compromise is also a risk for S.I.D.S., that’s the issue there. And for drinking, it’s simpler — if you’re intoxicated, you are more likely to roll over on the baby and not notice.
DUBNER: So, basically a baby in the bed, if there’s not smoking and drinking going on, is very low-risk, correct?
OSTER: It’s low-risk. Most of the evidence would suggest that there is some risk to that, but it’s small.
DUBNER: Apparently there is a fair amount of sleep-sharing, meaning parent and baby sleeping together, on a sofa versus a bed. How bad is that, if so?
OSTER: That is extremely dangerous. Of all of these things, sleeping on a sofa with your infant is something you should not do.
DUBNER: Why? I mean, how do bad things happen there?
OSTER: People fall asleep sitting up on the sofa with their baby because they are trying to stay awake and not fall asleep in bed with their baby, or some other reason. And then the baby falls over, the sofa is very soft. People fall over, they fall over on the baby, the risk there is suffocation. Yes, that’s really risky.
DUBNER: So the way you just told that story, it’s the desired avoidance of co-sleeping in a bed that leads to the bad thing, yes?
OSTER: Yes. And I think that’s something that doesn’t get enough— People are really trying very hard to stay awake, but of course you’re exhausted, and I think we’d be better off telling people that they would be better off sleeping safely in a bed than sleeping on a sofa, for sure.
DUBNER: So you’re a super-smart person, and I’m curious to know how you would describe the caliber of your thinking during that haze of, let’s say, the first year of your first kid.
OSTER: I mean, just terrible. I think part of it was I was constantly trying to figure out what was the right thing to do. Not so much around these data things, but just what exactly works for your kid. There’s this tendency to be looking for patterns all the time. Like, “Okay, they slept for six hours. What did I do? Was it like this particular song? I think you should probably sing that song again.”
DUBNER: And then what about sleep training and “crying it out” or other methods?
OSTER: Here the thing that people will tell you is that if you do this, your kid will be forever damaged and unable to form adult relationships. There isn’t any evidence for that. There actually is a lot of randomized trial evidence on the impacts of sleep-training programs on infant sleep, and there’s just no evidence to suggest that sleep training has any negative consequences. It does make your kid sleep better.
DUBNER: So if letting a baby cry it out leads to better sleep and baby sleeping presumably leads to better maternal sleep and maybe paternal sleep, I’m curious about the relationship between the baby’s sleep and maternal depression, and whether the cost of letting your kid cry it out might be really, really, really worth it in the long term, to the parents especially.
OSTER: Yes. What’s interesting about these studies of baby sleep is the main outcome they’re interested in is maternal depression, or parental functioning. And you actually see in the randomized data that one of the outcomes of doing a sleep-training program with your kid is lowered maternal depression. And some of those effects are really big, because sleep deprivation, we know it’s very hard to look positively at your life when you’re exhausted. And people whose kids really don’t sleep well, depression is a very significant risk.
And so I think that that gets lost a little bit in some of these discussions, is that there are some real benefits. It’s not just something you selfishly do because you’re hoping to go out to the club.
DUBNER: Let’s talk about the big landmark events for children that parents watch out for: walking, talking, and so on. What would you say is the single biggest misperception about those landmark events?
OSTER: Those physical milestones, there is a very wide range of normal. I think much wider than people perceive. And being on one or the other end of the ranges of normal is not worse. So, kids who walk late are no less likely to, say, be able to walk later or have lower I.Q., or anything like that.
People get very focused on physical milestones. And if they’re walking early, “maybe they’re going to go to the Olympics!” Your kid’s not going to the Olympics, probably.
DUBNER: What can you tell us about kids and germs and the hygiene hypothesis?
OSTER: So the hygiene hypothesis refers to the idea that you should expose your kids to germs, because then they will be healthier later and they will have fewer allergic reactions. I think that there’s some evidence to suggest that that’s true. And so for that reason, when your kid gets sick when they’re toddler age, usually we don’t worry too much. And you probably don’t need to be super-obsessive about never exposing them to any germs.
When your baby is very, very little, it actually is a good idea to avoid germs because if they get sick, then it sort of sets off a cascade of interventions which will happen even if they just have a cold, which you want to avoid.
DUBNER: But is exposure to germs, let’s say, in toddlerhood and up, is it actually long-term beneficial, then?
OSTER: I think to the extent we have evidence, it suggests it probably is somewhat long-term beneficial, at least in preventing them from getting sick later.
DUBNER: Okay, same questions, then, about allergens, because there’s certainly been a lot more attention paid to allergies — peanuts is maybe the most famous one. It would seem to be there’s a big spike in these. But it may just be these were previously undiagnosed. What can you tell us about exposure to allergens and long-term costs or benefits?
OSTER: Yes, so this is one of the biggest changes even in the last five or ten years, has been the recognition that the best way to prevent your kid from developing allergies to things like peanuts and eggs and wheat is to give it to them when they are little, not to avoid it.
And so people were told, “Don’t give your kids peanuts until they’re two, because it could be an allergen.” It turns out that is a great way to produce allergies in people, and a good way to prevent allergies is to give them peanuts very early on, so that advice has totally switched.
DUBNER: I can imagine thousands of parents listening to you right now and shuddering with the idea that, “Oh, the last thing I’m going to do is give my kids peanut butter when they’re three months old, because I barely got used to the kid, and now I’m endangering him or her.” So how do you do that early exposure while protecting yourself against possible downside?
OSTER: If you’re very anxious about this, sometimes they’ll tell people, bring your kid to the E.R. and give them some peanut snacks. You know, unless your family has a high risk of allergies, unless you have a reason to think your kid is at high risk of allergies, they almost certainly are not going to have that kind of reaction. It’s probably not something to actually worry that much about.
DUBNER: So what do you know about the incidence of, let’s say, peanut allergies now versus 50 years ago? Is it truly higher?
OSTER: It has gone up.
DUBNER: And why is that? Because I would think that more kids would have access to peanuts earlier now than they used to.
OSTER: There was a long period in which they told people not to expose people to peanuts. So I think that was not great.
DUBNER: So the supposed prevention was part of the problem, you’re saying.
OSTER: I believe that it’s part of the problem, yes.
DUBNER: Gotcha. Okay, let’s talk about vaccinations, which didn’t used to be very controversial but has become so in the last maybe 10 or 15 years. Talk about, I guess, the controversy, the beliefs, and where you feel the evidence lies.
OSTER: Childhood vaccinations are designed to prevent diseases, like pertussis or measles. There has been a lot of discussion in the last two decades about the possibility that vaccines cause autism or other kinds of negative consequences. There was a very, very damaging paper by a guy named Andrew Wakefield in The Lancet, which suggested that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine contributed to autism. It turns out that was not only wrong, but also completely made-up, fraudulent. He lost his medical license. But still, those concerns have been really, really prevalent, and have contributed to lower rates of vaccination.
There is no evidence for those negative consequences of vaccines. Vaccines do not cause autism. We have a tremendous amount of data showing that that is not true. They do not cause autism. The kinds of things people cite as risks are simply not there. And also vaccines do prevent disease.
DUBNER: What are the greatest downsides of the suite of vaccines that are commonly applied?
OSTER: The biggest risk of vaccines — and I should say, I am trying hard to actually take seriously the concerns that people have about these. I mean, I think it’s very clear you should vaccinate your kid, but I think we also do people a disservice by not explaining to them what is the real truth about the risks, which turn out to be very small.
So the big thing is that when you vaccinate your kid, they may get a fever. And that’s a very common reaction to the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine in particular, that it’s an immune challenge. A very small share of kids, if you get a fever very fast, can have a seizure, which is very scary, but actually also has no long-term consequences and is, again, a very rare complication. And there is a small number of other things that can happen, say, to a severely immune-compromised child which are cited as risks of vaccines. But of course, if your kid is very immunocompromised they will not be vaccinated.
DUBNER: Talk about discipline for a minute, and I’m especially curious about the value of consistency.
OSTER: When we look at evidence on discipline, the consistency emerges as the most important thing. So there’s a lot of different strategies. But in almost all cases, it’s just, you want to pick a strategy and stick with it, because you want your kid to know what to expect. Like, if you say, “If you don’t put down that toy, the following thing is going to happen,” you have to make sure that thing happens.
Which is why, if you’re on an airplane with your kid, and you say, “If you don’t stop kicking the chair, I’m going to leave you on the airplane,” that’s actually not a good threat because you’re not going to leave them on the airplane.
DUBNER: Says you.
OSTER: Yeah, unless you’re prepared to leave them on the airplane, don’t say that.
DUBNER: And then, how great is spanking? I assume it’s wildly effective?
OSTER: Spanking is not effective. There is no evidence that it is good, and a fair amount of evidence that it’s bad.
DUBNER: And how does that bad evidence manifest itself?
OSTER: That when you spank a kid, there are more behavior problems later.
DUBNER: Can you talk for a second about the tradeoff between a parent wanting their kid to be happy, and safe also, and wanting to do what’s long-term best for them, when it comes to child-rearing?
OSTER: This is a very hard thing. And I think it comes up even in something like discipline, where in the moment, you don’t want your kid to be sad. You don’t want to punish them. But you need to do that because that’s how they learn how to behave correctly and how to be a successful adult. But it’s hard, because you love your kids, you want them to be happy all the time.
DUBNER: Do you have any advice for people who are really torn between those two poles?
DUBNER: That’s quite hopeless.
OSTER: No, that’s not true. So, when you do some of these sleep-training things with your kid, it can be very hard. People don’t like to listen to their kids cry. And I have a WhatsApp channel with my best friends and I’ll be like, “Okay, I’m doing this. Can you please tell me that, like, it’s okay?” And they’ll be like, “Yes, you can do it! It’s great.”
I harp a lot on like, moms can be mean to each other and parents can be judgmental. But of course there’s also a camaraderie that comes with parenting that’s really special and can be really, really important for surviving.
DUBNER: Talk a little bit about media consumption — TV and/or screens and all the media that those can deliver. What’s the sensible way for modern parents to think about, again, the upsides and downsides?
OSTER: So, this is another place where evidence is not very good. On the one hand, it is very hard to imagine that having your kid watch a half an hour of TV a week while you take a shower is going to be bad for them. And indeed, the evidence would suggest that that is fine. It is also the case that if your kid is only watching TV all the time, we will generally think that is probably not good.
Some of the questions you would be more interested in answering are, what about 90 minutes a day, or a couple of hours a day, is that a problem? We do have some evidence on that — some of it’s actually by my husband, oddly — which suggests that watching TV in that range of time is not damaging, doesn’t have impacts on later I.Q. or test scores.
What we’re missing, I think, is answers to questions like, what about iPad games, what about screen time on the phone? And that just hasn’t been very well-studied because those technologies are relatively new.
DUBNER: So, in terms of figuring out how the baby or kid will be cared for, and really who’s going to take care of the child, you advocate creating a decision tree. What share of your readers do you think will actually create a decision tree and follow it?
OSTER: One hundred percent, obviously. No, a lot of what I’m trying to do is just say, look, there’s a framework, a way that you can think about these decisions, and just structuring the way you think about it a little bit can sometimes be very helpful to come to the choice that works best for you.
DUBNER: What do you know about the relationship between daycare and cognitive and behavioral outcomes?
OSTER: Again, it’s very hard to study, and to the extent that we see data, it suggests that maybe there’s a little bit of negative impacts on some behavior from very early on and maybe some positive impacts from having your kid in daycare later. So if you summed it up, it’s like, if you said, “I’m going to either have a nanny ‘til school, or I’m going to have daycare,” it’s basically a wash. So do what works for you.
DUBNER: Are kids who go to daycare less attached to their parents?
OSTER: No. They are not.
DUBNER: You write the following about going back to work yourself, as an economist: “The eighth hour at my job is better than the fifth hour with the kids on a typical day. And that is why I have a job, because I like it. It should be okay to say this.” Is it not okay to say this among certain friends or family members?
OSTER: Yeah, I think sometimes it’s not. I think it can feel often in these conversations that parents have with each other, and particularly moms, that if you work, you’re supposed to say, “Oh, well of course I have to work. I’d love to spend more time with my kids.” And if you don’t work, you sort of say, “Well, I have to stay home.” And I think you get a lot of judgment on both sides in a way that I think is really not helpful.
DUBNER: Well, what can you tell us about the benefits of a stay-at-home parent?
OSTER: There really aren’t many differences across kids. Depending on how the sort of work configuration of the household. I should say, this is one of those examples where it’s very hard to study, because whether parents choose to work is not assigned randomly, it correlates with income. It correlates with all that stuff.
But to the extent that we know, we certainly don’t have any good evidence suggesting that one kind of parenting, whether it’s stay-at-home or or not stay home, that one of those is better than the other.
DUBNER: You write that the U.S. has subpar maternity-leave policies, and you compare that unfavorably to European and other countries. So what effect do those relatively long-term parental-leave policies have on kids’ outcomes?
OSTER: Yes, so I want to distinguish between two things. One is going from, say, no maternity-leave policy, which is what a lot of people have in the U.S., to something like four months, which would be the low end of what you would get in these European countries. And I think there, we do have good evidence from policy changes in the U.S. and from other places that that is good for infant health, that having some maternity-leave opportunities, some ability to be home early in life, is good.
When we then think about going from four months to, say, two years, there we don’t see much evidence that that influences long-term outcomes. I think that going to everybody having a year is probably not as important as trying to make sure that people have a few months.
DUBNER: You write the following: “By the time I had Penelope” — which was your first kid — “I was 31. Up to that point in my life, there had been surprisingly few instances in which I could not defeat a problem with hard work.” So, how did the problems of parenting differ? Were your work ethic and intellect as effective in this realm? And I’m curious how it played out.
OSTER: I think the introduction of another person really limits the way that work can help. And so I think I wrote that in the context of thinking about infant crying, and these moments with your baby early on, where you think, “Okay, why don’t you just get on the breast and nurse?” They just won’t do it. And it doesn’t matter how hard you work, you can’t get them to do it. Or later when it’s something like potty training, it’s sort of like, okay, my kid doesn’t want to poop on the potty, I can’t make them.
So there are many moments like that in parenting, where you’re just like, I can’t make you fall asleep. I can’t close your eyes for you. And I’m working so hard. But there’s nothing I can do.
DUBNER: I’m curious what you think that says about like humans generally.
OSTER: I thought you were going to say what does that say about me? Nothing good.
DUBNER: Well, because considering how long our species has been around, and considering how well we do at passing along some types of information from generation to generation — math comes to mind; Euclid did a lot so that I don’t have to. But do you think as a species we’ve been not all that successful in passing along parenting information? Because it seems like every generation is newly flummoxed.
OSTER: Yeah, I think part of it is just like, infants are really hard. So particularly little babies — what are you going to say? Like, the baby cries a lot. And a lot of times, you can’t figure out what they want. And every baby is a little bit different. I mean, if you think about your parents giving this advice, it’s actually really hard to remember, particularly, this very early time, which is sort of out of your control. Also, nobody wants to listen to their mom when she’s like, “Oh, why don’t you try this? That’s what’s worked with you.” “Get out of my face.”
That was the Brown University economist Emily Oster; her new book is called Cribsheet.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, and Corinne Wallace. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.[ + ]
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Emily Oster, author and Professor of Economics at Brown University.
Thu, 25 Apr 2019 03:00:32 +0000
The Data-Driven Guide to Sane Parenting (Ep. 376)
Humans, it has long been thought, are the only animal to engage in economic activity. But what if we’ve had it exactly backward?
* * *
Here’s a question: what is the one thing that sets humans apart from all other animals?
Bill DIAMOND: I believe it is our curiosity, and specifically the curiosity of the why and the how, that is the essence of our humanity and separates us from all other species on this planet.
That’s Bill Diamond. He’s president of the SETI institute — that stands for “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”
DIAMOND: Other animal species may exhibit the curiosity of the “what.” As in, “What was that noise? What do I see or smell? Is it a threat or is it a meal?” And we all know that curiosity may kill the cat, but our curiosity — to understand the how and the why — drives humans to learn, to explore, to discover, and invent. All of which contribute to our success as a species, perhaps sometimes to a fault.
Anthony APPIAH: Well, I think the thing that distinguishes humans from animals, most obviously, is language.
And that is Anthony Appiah, who teaches philosophy at N.Y.U.
APPIAH: Language is what makes possible the accumulation of culture, it makes possible the very complex forms of social collaboration that human beings do which no other organism does with such flexibility. And it’s why we’re just not like any other animal on the planet.
What does Appiah think that other animals — dogs, maybe — would say if they could speak?
APPIAH: There’s a famous remark of Wittgenstein’s to the effect of, “If lions could speak, we wouldn’t understand them.” And I’m not entirely sure what he had in mind. The main difference a dog’s speech would make to dogs is that they could talk to each other and then they could collaborate in ways that they can’t now. They could say, “I’ll meet you in five minutes at the sheep pen” and stuff like that. And then they could accumulate knowledge and share it through the generations and acquire more complicated doggie packages of ideas. So yeah, it would make a huge difference, and we’d have to be much more careful in our relations with dogs.
Keith CHEN: My name is Keith Chen and I’m a behavioral economist and a professor at the business school at U.C.L.A.
Stephen DUBNER: So Keith, if I were to ask you as an economist, what’s the one thing that makes humans human, what would you say?
CHEN: Oh my gosh. I mean as an economist, I would say, you know, co-operative trade. The ability to form complex social structures that allow the emergence of things like cooperation and effective economies. That strikes me as by far one of our most interesting differences from animals.
DUBNER: So I can see why you’d say that. I think of one of the most famous quotes in economic history, from Adam Smith, who once wrote, “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal, by its gestures and natural cries, signify to another, ‘This is mine, that yours. I am willing to give this for that.’” But, you yourself — you’re the economist, that I know of at least, who’s actually done experiments with animals — capuchin monkeys, particularly, and tamarin monkeys — that seems to show that Smith was, to a large degree — I don’t know if I should call him wrong — but doesn’t it seem like he was kind of wrong?
CHEN: Yeah, so Smith was definitely wrong. Okay, maybe we could defend Smith and say he really meant just dogs specifically.
Keith Chen’s answer about what makes us human isn’t all that surprising. Indeed, we sometimes call ourselves homo economicus because of our ability to trade, to create markets, to respond rationally to supply and demand. But: what if we have that whole idea… kind of backwards?
* * *
The U.C.L.A. economist Keith Chen did his monkey research back when he was a graduate student at Harvard and then while teaching at Yale.
CHEN: Yeah that’s absolutely right.
DUBNER: We should say, the monkeys that you’ve done work with, capuchins and tamarins, they’re way down the tree from us, in terms of intelligence, yes?
CHEN: Well, so I should be a little careful, right — so primatologists will tell you that what we know about monkey intelligence is very multifaceted. But the monkeys I worked with, they’re so-called New World monkeys, meaning they’re found in North and South America. They are more distantly related from us than the whole group of what we call Old World monkeys, monkeys that are found in Africa and Asia. And in general they’re less intelligent than Old World monkeys.
DUBNER: I love that you don’t want to insult their intelligence, that’s how much you care about them.
CHEN: Well, they might take it personally.
DUBNER: Of course. They are smart enough to take it personally if you call them dumb.
The first monkey experiments Chen worked on, with the primatologist Marc Hauser, explored the ideas of reciprocity and altruism. The researchers would put two tamarins in separate cages, where they could see each other.
CHEN: We set up situations where one tamarin could pull a lever and it would drop a marshmallow into your world. Monkey A pulls the lever and it drops just a marshmallow into your world. And then the question is later, are you nice to this monkey?
“Niceness” was measured by whether Monkey B would reciprocate by pulling its lever to give Monkey A a marshmallow. Often, they did: about 40 percent of the time. This compared to just 7 percent of the time for a monkey who hadn’t given his partner a marshmallow. The takeaway, for tamarins, was this: you do something nice for me, I’ll do something nice for you. You do nothing for me? I’ll pass.
CHEN: Situation two is, monkey pulls a lever, it drops a marshmallow into your world and a marshmallow into his world. So it looks like he’s being nice to you, but only as kind of a byproduct of doing himself this favor.
And what happens when Monkey B sees his marshmallow as a mere byproduct of Monkey A’s self-interest? In this case, Monkey B reciprocates only three percent of the time — even less than if Monkey A hadn’t given him a marshmallow at all.
CHEN: Like a true altruist versus an accidental altruist, monkeys are smart enough to distinguish.
DUBNER: And did that surprise you, that distinction?
CHEN: Oh my gosh. Yeah, absolutely.
This distinction was surprising because it looks an awful lot like what humans do while making economic decisions.
John LIST: So I do experiments on politicians, on C.E.O.’s, on car salesmen, on school teachers and school kids.
That’s John List from the University of Chicago. He’s one of the foremost practitioners of economic experiments on humans.
LIST: And where I start, is I say, “What are the fundamental building blocks from economics that we can test to see if these people conform to economic theories?” And the thing that you’d point to is the law of demand. It says, “I’ll buy less if I face higher prices.” It almost seems absurdly obvious. So when I do experiments like that — when I increase price — what happens in the markets? Nearly every time — politician, C.E.O., school teacher — they will always conform to that particular law. Three-, four-, five-year-olds conform to that law.
DUBNER: And would you say that’s maybe the one law in economics that is actually a law? I guess what I really want to know is, is it the truest law of economics laws?
LIST: Exactly. I think that the truest law of economics laws would be the law of demand.
DUBNER: Now, would it surprise you if animals, if non-human animals responded to that law less consistently than human animals? I guess that would surprise you, right? Because they’re not as brilliant as us.
LIST: Yeah, I think that if you talk about rationality and reasoning being important in satisfying this particular law, then I would say insomuch as those are important, we should find more violations of that law than what we find amongst humans. That’s correct.
In other words, those not-very-brilliant New World monkeys that Keith Chen was working with, you’d assume they would not respond to the law of demand like we do. But Chen wanted to find out for sure. First, he would have to teach a bunch of capuchin monkeys to use money.
CHEN: You know, that took a long time.
As money, he used metal washers, the kind you get at a hardware store.
CHEN: So some monkeys never get it. Some monkeys — I mean, we gave up after about half a year of trying to teach them to patiently pick up a washer and then hand it to an experimenter who would then trade it for food. These tended to be younger monkeys that would never get the task. But no monkey picked it up immediately. It was very artificial to them, this kind of physical trade.
DUBNER: But once some monkeys did learn how to use money and buy different food and make choices, basically, you were able to produce what we would recognize as economic research. Yes?
CHEN: Absolutely. So, once they understood the concept of money and once they started to use it fluently, all of a sudden it felt like a lot of other components of economic activity suddenly became unlocked, like they suddenly seem very natural at responding to price changes. So, yesterday apple slices only cost a coin, today they’re on sale and one coin will buy me two apple slices. They immediately got that and respond in ways that look incredibly, textbook, economically rational.
DUBNER: Yeah, so what you just described is, I guess, you’d call it a price shock, right? Would you say that the capuchin monkeys responded worse, as well, or better than the average human in responding to a price shock?
CHEN: Well, we conducted this relatively technical test, but it’s called GARP in economic lingo, the Generalized Axiom of Revealed Preference. Economists think of GARP as basically the test which asks, “Are humans responding in a rational way to prices?” We don’t want to call people irrational just because they like peanut butter more than jelly, or if they like jelly more than peanut butter. But GARP basically says, regardless of how you feel about peanut butter and jelly, you should eat more jelly if we double the price of peanut butter. And it puts bounds on behavior, which we’ll call rational responses to price shocks. And when we test the capuchin monkeys on this basic rational response to price shocks, they pass GARP as well as any human beings that you can test. In fact, it’s not until about age 10 or 11 that humans even start to pass GARP at this basic level that we observe the capuchin monkeys passing it at.
Okay, so capuchin monkeys seem to understand price shocks, and the law of demand, pretty well. On that dimension, they’re looking fairly human. But what about some other dimensions that make us human? Like some of the quirks and biases we exhibit when making decisions? Chen wondered whether those parallels would hold up as you went down the evolutionary ladder.
CHEN: We tested this long-standing economic puzzle, which is called the endowment effect.
DUBNER: Where you give some students a coffee mug and others a pen, and ask them to trade, is that the idea?
CHEN: Exactly. So, in Econ 101 classes around the country in their first year, half of econ students are handed mugs and half are handed pens, and the economically rational thing is for half of all students to request a trade. Basically, you either like a pen more or you like a mug more, and you get a 50 percent chance of getting what you liked more. So about half of students should trade for the other thing. And then what we typically observe is only about somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of students trade, instead of the economically rational 50. And that’s exactly what we saw with capuchin monkeys as well. We find they look just like countless experiments that you run with Econ 101 students in large lecture halls.
DUBNER: Even though we think of the endowment effect as economic language now, just describe what you think is the sort of psychological formation that results in our wanting to keep what is ours.
CHEN: Yeah, that’s something called loss aversion. Loss aversion is this basic idea that once you have something, it feels more painful to give it up than it would have felt good to acquire it in the first place. So quite robustly, students act as if it hurts two and a half times more to be asked to give up the mug than it felt good to be given the mug in the first place. It’s almost as if just instantaneously, this sense of ownership makes it a painful loss to give up the mug, as opposed to a smaller gain to acquire it in the first place. And what that does is, it basically suppresses trade. It means that we don’t see nearly as much economic activity as we see between humans.
So Keith Chen found that capuchin monkeys, once they were taught to use money, behaved rationally, like we do, when it comes to price theory; and irrationally — like we do — when it comes to the endowment effect.
CHEN: We were surprised every month, like every month we would just be flabbergasted again at how sophisticated our monkeys looked. Specifically, at economic activity. But also, the subtle ways in which they looked irrational and they looked emotional, in exactly the same ways that people do.
Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised that other primates behave like us in these ways. We do share more genetic material with them than other animals. That’s something pointed out by the renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, when we asked him what makes humans human.
Frans DE WAAL: I’ve been doing this for a long time, like 40 years. And the question, whether humans are different and how they are different, is for me a sort of weird question, because for me humans are primates. So they’re not fundamentally different. Darwin of course said that we descend from the apes, but I think he didn’t go far enough. We are basically apes — there’s no good reason to distinguish us from apes. And there are taxonomists who have argued that we should not even have a special genus — we are just part of chimpanzees and bonobos because in terms of DNA, we are 98.5% identical. In every respect I consider human intelligence and cognition a variation on animal intelligence and cognition. I don’t see it as fundamentally different.
Okay, I see de Waal’s point. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that other primates engage in what looks like the economic activity we engage in. But still, let’s remember: Keith Chen’s experiments happened in a lab, after he and his colleagues had painstakingly taught the monkeys to use money. You don’t see capuchins setting up banks and stock exchanges in the wild. And you certainly wouldn’t expect to see economic activity in animals further down the chain, like fish — would you?
Ronald NOThu, 18 Apr 2019 03:00:01 +0000
The Invisible Paw (Ep. 329 Rebroadcast)
The banana used to be a luxury good. Now it’s the most popular fruit in the U.S. and elsewhere. But the production efficiencies that made it so cheap have also made it vulnerable to a deadly fungus that may wipe out the one variety most of us eat. Scientists do have a way to save it — but will Big Banana let them?
* * *
In 1876, the city of Philadelphia commemorated 100 years of American independence with a Centennial Exposition.
Virginia Scott JENKINS: Well, it was a big trade fair. It was like a World’s Fair. And there was a horticultural exhibit, and they had a banana plant with bananas growing on it.
That’s Virginia Scott Jenkins. She’s a cultural historian and the author of Bananas: An American History.
JENKINS: And they had to put a guard on it because people wanted to pick a leaf, or poke at it. Because people hadn’t seen one of these things.
The banana plant— and yes, it’s a plant, technically, not a tree; and the banana is technically a berry — anyway, this banana plant had stiff competition for attention at the centennial expo. Also on display were the right arm and flame of the Statue of Liberty, which hadn’t yet been erected in New York Harbor. There were the first public demonstrations of the typewriter and of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. And: an appearance by the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. Still, the humble banana plant caused a stir, thanks to its novelty.
JENKINS: They’re not native to the Americas, at all.
And in North America, bananas weren’t even possible.
JENKINS: Well, they take about 18 months from sprouting to fruit, and the climate in different ecological zones in the United States, you don’t get frost-free that long.
The banana was one of the first fruits cultivated by humans; the earliest written accounts go back to 500 B.C.E., in India. The Americas didn’t get the banana ‘til much later — although exactly when and how are, like much banana history, disputed facts. But it’s safe to say that in 1876 in Philadelphia, the banana was still exotic to most Americans.
JENKINS: In the first two-thirds or three-quarters of the 19th century, bananas might come in to an East Coast port on a sailing ship, and then they’d be sold at the port. But they weren’t generally commercially available anywhere. They were a luxury item. They were very expensive. I found some very interesting menus, for very fancy occasions, that might have bananas on the menu. But they were something that most people had never seen, most people had never tasted.
Even though bananas were by then being grown in Latin America, sailing ships couldn’t travel fast enough to reliably keep the fruit from overripening. But then came steamships and railroads.
JENKINS: They would just put huge pieces of ice at each end of a freight car to try to keep the bananas cool.
And by the 1920’s, trains started getting mechanical refrigeration; in the 1930’s came refrigerated trucks. This new technology had a huge impact on food distribution generally — it made possible the modern meat industry, for instance. It also allowed for the bulk importation of bananas to the United States. The variety that Americans came to know and love was the Gros Michel, also known as “Big Mike.”
JENKINS: And it was a large banana, and it had thick skin, so it didn’t bruise easily.
There are more than 1,000 banana varieties in the world. But, Jenkins says:
JENKINS: A lot of other banana varieties don’t travel well. Either they’re small, or they have thin skins, or for one reason or another didn’t grow well.
In 1900, Americans were eating 15 million bunches of bananas a year. Just a decade later: 40 million. So it was very bad news when a fungus emerged.
JENKINS: Devastating the plantations in Latin America.
This fungus came to be called Panama Disease. It was first noticed in the late 1800’s; by the 1950’s, it was wiping out the Gros Michel.
JENKINS: What the fruit companies did was, they’d move on to another country and buy up a lot more land, and grow bananas until the disease caught up with them and they had to move on.
But the disease couldn’t be outrun. The Gros Michel was doomed.
JENKINS: So they changed to a variety called the Cavendish banana.
The Cavendish was not susceptible to the disease that wiped out the Gros Michel. So the Cavendish is the banana most of us eat today. It accounts for 99 percent of the banana export market. The last Gros Michels in the U.S. were sold in 1965. So our banana is not the same banana our elders ate.
JENKINS: Well, I’ve never had a Gros Michel. I’m not old enough, so I’m not really sure how much difference there was.
Some people who did eat the Gros Michel say it was more delicious than the Cavendish. But the Cavendish has done very well, thank you. It is the most popular fruit in both the U.S. and Europe, even though the vast majority of them must be imported. The E.U. imports around six million tons of Cavendish bananas each year, or 110 bananas per person; the U.S., about 130 bananas per person. Canada beats us both, with 150 bananas. So you can imagine there would be a lot of unhappy people if the banana we all eat were, once again, under existential threat.
Douglas SOUTHGATE: Well, the doomsday scenario is that it wipes out the international banana trade.
That’s right: Panama Disease is back, and this time it’s come for the Cavendish. Today on Freakonomics Radio: sometimes a banana is just a banana but in this case, it’s also a symbol of commerce, of political discord, of scientific dilemmas — and of course, personal taste:
Andrew BILES: My preference is bananas as they are, or, curiously enough, bananas on toast.
* * *
Why are bananas so popular? Let us count the ways. And — full disclosure — I say this as someone who, personally, does not love bananas. But I do recognize how appealing they are. Sorry about that. But, seriously, the peel: it’s got to be part of it. First of all: it’s bright yellow; it’s basically an advertisement for itself. Also, Virginia Scott Jenkins notes that the banana first gained popularity around the time people were just starting to learn about germs and food hygiene. One early banana importer called it “a fruit in a germ-proof wrapper.”
JENKINS: This was something that you could eat on the street and not worry about getting sick from it.
There was also a new awareness around food and nutrition.
JENKINS: People were interested in calories, and this was a good way to get more nutrition and vitamins at the same time.
Still, if you know even a little bit about economics, you’d have to think that price must also have something to do with the banana being the most popular fruit in America. And this is where it gets interesting. Picture yourself in a grocery store: you see piles and piles of apples, all different varieties. About 95 percent of the apples eaten in the U.S. are grown in the U.S.; the imports usually just plug a hole at the end of the growing season.
Now check out the pile of bananas. First thing you notice: just the one variety, the Cavendish. And every one of them has been grown, picked, washed, and boxed in another country. Then they’re shipped, still green, in a temperature-controlled environment. At their destination, they’re put in special “ripening rooms” that provide, among other amenities, the release of gases that trick the banana into thinking it’s still back home in the tropics. At a temperature of 64 degrees, a banana can be ripened in as little as four days; at 58 degrees, it’ll take seven days.
Considering all this aftercare, and the fact that they’re all imported, you might expect a banana to be much more expensive than those very American apples. And yet they’re not: bananas are typically less than half the price of apples. In fact, they’re among the cheapest fruits around. How can this be? How did an imported luxury item become a cheap American staple? Well, let’s start here:
SOUTHGATE: It’s in part a story of economies of scale.
That’s the economist Douglas Southgate, an emeritus professor at Ohio State University. He started studying bananas because:
SOUTHGATE: Well, the short answer is that my wife is from Ecuador, which happens to be the leading exporter of bananas, and has been for the last 65 years. Even though the country is no larger than the state of Colorado.
Bananas are grown in many warm countries around the world, in the eastern and western hemispheres.
SOUTHGATE: Bananas are far and away the most widely traded fruit, fruit or vegetable.
Andrew BILES: Basically, there are 135 countries that grow bananas, and there are 145 million tons of bananas produced every year. That’s about 800 billion bananas.
And that’s Andrew Biles, who until recently worked at Chiquita, one of the world’s largest banana companies. His title at Chiquita was C.E.O. of bananas and pineapples — seriously, that’s the title. As for the bananas:
BILES: In the world, it’s the fourth most-important crop after rice, wheat, and corn. The economic value generated by the banana industry is some $52 billion. And there are some 400 million people that rely on bananas for a staple food or a staple source of income. There are many countries if they did not have bananas, they would go short of food.
The Cavendish banana accounts for just under 50 percent of global banana production but, again, almost 100 percent of exported bananas. And Ecuador alone accounts for more than a quarter of all Cavendish exports.
SOUTHGATE: If you produce something in very, very large numbers, then you bring down the per-unit or average cost.
For the early American banana companies, the transition from luxury fruit to mass import was a strategic move.
SOUTHGATE: The key to the strategy or to understanding the strategy was to realize that they made more money from having a smaller margin on a much larger volume than they would have had continuing to treat bananas as a luxury item.
And how did they accomplish this? Consider the history of Chiquita.
BILES: Chiquita started way back in the 1800’s and was a company that first went public, believe it or not, in 1903.
Back then, it was known as the United Fruit Company. And United Fruit happened to have:
SOUTHGATE: United Fruit happened to have the largest fleet of ships in the Western Hemisphere. Only the U.S. Navy had a larger fleet of ships.
In fact, the Navy would requisition some United ships during World War II. But in peacetime:
SOUTHGATE: Well, they used those fleets to move bananas to the United States very, very efficiently. And as is always the case, or practically always the case, the major beneficiaries of this efficiency were in fact consumers. Prices were slashed, and within a few years, bananas were no longer a luxury item. They were instead a fruit of poor people. The first food that a lot of poor babies ate after weaning were mashed bananas, in the days before canned baby food.
It would be hard to overstate here the role of the United Fruit Company.
BILES: What we have here is a company that did develop over time a significant business and actually created a banana industry.
SOUTHGATE: It was called the Octopus because it had a near-monopoly on production. United Fruit definitely had its tentacles wrapped around this industry.
Most of United’s bananas were grown in the Spanish-speaking countries to our south:
SOUTHGATE: Costa Rica, Honduras and other Central American nations happen to be an ideal setting for raising bananas for the U.S. market.
Ideal because of the climate, yes. But also because land and labor were both very, very cheap. So: American consumers were winning; United Fruit was really winning; and what about those Central American countries? Keep in mind they were largely undeveloped at the time.
SOUTHGATE: Foreign companies, led by United Fruit, were willing to make the investment to clear land, put in infrastructure and so forth to start producing bananas on a massive scale for the U.S. market. But only if they were awarded vast tracts of land and largely exempted from taxation. So that gave them the dominant position. That’s what led to “banana republics.”
Yes, before it was a clothing store, “banana republic” meant something very different — essentially, a fragile country whose economy and, often, political leadership, were propped up by an export crop. And when a banana republic acted against the interests of their banana overlords, things could get ugly. Consider the case of Guatemala in the early 1950’s. President Jacobo Arbenz, a former army colonel, was pursuing a land-reform program that would have reclaimed property from the banana companies.
SOUTHGATE: And this angered United Fruit. United Fruit definitely wanted to see Arbenz go.
United Fruit lobbied the U.S. Congress to act against Guatemala — and Arbenz was ultimately ousted in a coup led by the C.I.A.
SOUTHGATE: Drawing a simple line of causation — United Fruit, U.S. Government overthrow of Guatemala — doesn’t capture all of what was going on. The U.S. government had other reasons why it was alarmed at some of what Arbenz was doing, apart from the land reform.
Specifically: the American government was worried that Guatemala was sliding toward communism, and an alliance with the Soviet Union. This was a common theme of the Cold War era; we’re not talking only Guatemala here. In any case, the U.S. overthrow of Guatemala led to destabilization and decades of bloody civil war. United Fruit, meanwhile, continued to tangle with the governments in other banana republics — and, ultimately, the U.S. Government as well, which accused United Fruit of monopolistic behavior.
SOUTHGATE: They controlled production and also had an extensive, deep network for distributing bananas from U.S. ports inland. So United Fruit was very much the banana business.
In 1967, United Fruit agreed to reorganize and sell off some of its strategic assets. The Octopus was shrinking. The next blow came from Ecuador.
SOUTHGATE: That was the most important development that ended the Octopus’s time. Ecuador does not fit at all into the standard banana-republic narrative.
Land in Ecuador was owned by independent farmers, so it wasn’t susceptible to the political and economic exploitation that had worked elsewhere.
SOUTHGATE: By the time the major companies were taking a serious look in Ecuador, most of the good farmland, the prime farmland, was already owned by Ecuadorians. That meant that there were never going to be any extensive concessions and grants of tax exemptions, all those sorts of things.
In the late 1940s, Ecuador’s president, Galo Plaza, invested heavily in infrastructure and pest control that benefited the local banana growers.
SOUTHGATE: Here was this important source of supply that came online in a very big way, very quickly, after World War II, and it was a source of supply that was impossible for United Fruit to control. We learned from Ecuador something that’s more typical about the role of local entrepreneurs in agricultural trade and development, the contributions that they can make.
Today, no one company comes close to dominating the international banana trade like United Fruit once did. The three biggest banana companies — Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita, United’s successor — they share around 40 percent of the global export market. So there’s more competition than there used to be — which, economists would tell you, helps keep prices down. But there’s an even more powerful explanation for why bananas are so cheap: standardization.
BILES: So the advantage of having the Cavendish is that it is really a monoculture, that you can actually grow it consistently.
Andrew Biles again, formerly of Chiquita.
BILES: You know that it’s going to take eight to nine months to come to fruition. And you know how that banana is going to function when it’s transported in a refrigerated cargo. You know how it’s going to perform in the ripening rooms in the country of destination, and you know how it’s going to perform and hold up on the retail shelf.
And it’s not just that nearly every banana grown for export is a Cavendish; it’s that every Cavendish banana is genetically the same as the next Cavendish. From a business perspective, that’s ideal — the ultimate in quality control. From an agricultural perspective, however:
BILES: There’s no diversity, so there’s that, each plant is the same, each plant has the same resistance to disease as it spreads.
As you’ll recall, the Gros Michel banana was wiped out years ago by Panama Disease — or, technically, Fusarium wilt. It’s caused by a fungus that infects the plant’s roots and eventually kills the whole plant — and leaves the soil unfit for future banana growth. The strain of Panama Disease that killed off the Gros Michel was known as TR1, or Tropical Race 1. Now there’s a strain called TR4 that’s attacking the Cavendish.
BILES: So, indeed, it’s fallen victim to almost the same disease as the Gros Michel. So what we see is TR4 start apparently in Indonesia, it spread in the Philippines, it’s devastated crops there as farmers move to the Mekong Delta or to Myanmar.
And the banana industry is very worried that TR4 will make it to Latin America.
BILES: If you look at the map, it’s a disease that seems to be spreading west.
* * *
It may sound like a made-up name, but Humpty Doo is a real place — a small town in the Northern Territory of Australia. It’s hot, wet, and fairly rugged.
James DALE: When we first went onto the plantation, the plantation manager said, “You got to be a bit careful working around here. A girl was taken by a crocodile a couple of months ago.” We also have a real problem with wild buffalo. But we’ve managed to work there without losing any of our staff.
That’s James Dale. He’s a plant scientist.
DALE: I work at Queensland University of Technology, in Brisbane, in Australia. I work on bananas.
Dale’s first job out of grad school was working on a banana disease.
DALE: And it was a disease called bunchy top, and it had a long history in Australia.
Bunchy top was caused by a virus that scientists couldn’t find a way to control.
DALE: When the concept of genetic modification came along, and that was sort of, the late 1980’s, we said, “Wow, this is going to be absolutely perfect for bananas.” And the reason for that is that the bananas that we eat are primarily sterile.
Wild banana seeds are very hard, and so the Cavendish, like other banana varieties that people eat, has essentially been bred into a seedless, sterile condition.
DALE: So crops that don’t have any seeds are extremely difficult to breed conventionally. So the idea of being able to genetically modify them — that is, to add additional genes to Cavendish, for instance, which we are interested in, seemed really, really attractive.
Attractive and, for the global banana trade, important. Because the Cavendish, like the Gros Michel before it, has rare attributes.
DALE: They’re robust. They travel long distances. And there really isn’t anything else on the horizon that could now go and replace Cavendish. There is nothing that you could pull out and say, “This is going to do what Cavendish did after the last outbreak.”
The new strain of Panama Disease emerged in the 1990s.
DALE: And around about 2000, we decided that this disease, Tropical Race 4, was going to be a huge problem, so we set out to look for genes that provide resistance to the disease.
As part of this research, Dale had a former Ph.D. student out collecting wild bananas.
DALE: And this scientist was in Malaysia, and happened to see this patch of bananas, which were growing where everything else had died from Tropical Race 4. So she and her colleagues collected seeds of those bananas and they sent them back to Australia.
James Dale and his team began studying these bananas.
DALE: We said, “Okay, let’s go and look in the DNA of those resistant ones, and see if we can find the gene that would provide resistance.” And we came up with a number of candidates, genes that seemed to be working in the resistant seedlings, but not in the susceptible seedlings. And one of those looked really promising to us. So we took that gene. And by a process known as agrobacterium-mediated transformation, we put it into — another terminology — embryogenic cells, or embryogenic cell suspensions. And these are — we make these cells from Cavendish. They have the ability to regenerate an entire plant from a single cell.
And this leads us back to Humpty Doo, Australia, which had been a fertile site for banana production.
DALE: But because of the Tropical Race 4, it’s been wiped out.
Which made Humpty Doo the perfect place to hold the world’s first experiment to see whether genetically modified Cavendish bananas could survive Panama Disease. Remember: once Panama Disease has struck, the soil remains contaminated with the fungus.
DALE: So we put this gene into these single cells and grew bananas back.
In 2012, they began field trials that would last a few years, planting both genetically modified and non-G.M. bananas in the Humpty Doo soil. What’d they find?
DALE: So what we found is — and we found a number of things — we found that the non-G.M. bananas were between 100 percent and around two-thirds of them were either dead or infected after three years. So the disease was having a pretty big impact.
Okay, that’s important to know — that Panama Disease was still in the soil. Which meant if a genetically-modified plant survived, it was surviving Panama Disease. So how did the genetically modified plants do? Dale and his team planted six different lines of G.M. Cavendish plants.
DALE: One of those, line three, the gene we put in was R.G.A. 2, so R.G.A. 2, line 3 — appeared to be completely immune. At the end of three years, none of the plants were infected at all. So essentially, what we’ve done is, we’ve taken a gene from a wild banana that is resistant to Tropical Race 4, and we’ve taken that one banana gene and we’ve gone and put it into Cavendish. And by doing that, we have generated resistance to the disease.
This was amazing banana news. R.G.A. 2, line 3 was a clear winner. Some of the other genetic modifications did well too.
DALE: Three of the other lines had relatively high levels of resistance, where there was 20 percent or less plants either infected or dead. Which was, to us, an incredible outcome. Rarely do you get that sort of percentage success in the sorts of things we do. So we were pretty excited about that.
And there was something else to be excited about.
DALE: The other really important thing we found was that the gene that we put in, this R.G.A. 2 gene, not only occurs in these wild bananas, but it also occurs in Cavendish. It just doesn’t work very well. That’s actually really, really important, because there’s a new technology known as gene editing. It’s different to gene modifications. Gene editing is where you can go into the D.N.A. and just tweak genes that are already there. So it’s very, very close to, sort of, natural processes. So that’s where we’re now starting to figure out how we can tweak the gene in Cavendish to make them resistant without actually adding any new genes at all.
This type of gene editing is made possible by something known as CRISPR— which, as I’m sure you know, stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” We spoke with one of CRISPR’s inventors, the biochemist Jennifer Doudna, back in 2017, for an episode called “Evolution, Accelerated.”
Jennifer DOUDNA: At its core, the CRISPR gene-editing technology is now giving human beings the opportunity to change the course of evolution. And human beings have been affecting evolution for a long time. But now there’s a technology that allows very specific changes to be made to DNA that gives us a new level of control.
DALE: CRISPR is terrific, so yes, we are using CRISPR at the moment.
So this would seem to be super-amazing banana news. There are potentially two ways to save the Cavendish from Panama Disease: by using CRISPR to tweak its genetic code or by introducing new, resistant genes from other bananas. Either way, the banana industry must be thrilled by the solutions that James Dale is proposing. Right? We asked Andrew Biles, former C.E.O. of bananas (and pineapples) at Chiquita:
BILES: James Dale, he is working on more of a GM approach, okay. That, of course, is not so acceptable societally. So some people will say, “yes, I don’t mind genetic modification.” Others will say they do.
Indeed, a sizeable fraction of consumers, in the U.S. and especially in Europe, consider genetically modified crops to be risky, despite assurances to the contrary from scientists like James Dale.
DALE: And that’s where we’ve failed. We really haven’t got the message across. This is one of the most incredibly highly-regulated technologies in the world. So the sorts of things that we go through to demonstrate safety is amazing.
The objection to G.M.O. crops is also curious in light of the fact that traditional plant breeding — without which many, many fewer of us would be alive — is itself a form of genetic modification. Jennifer Doudna again.
DOUDNA: It’s important for people to appreciate that, first of all, that humans have been modifying plants for a long time genetically —
DUBNER: Thank goodness.
DOUDNA: — for literally thousands of years. Exactly — thank goodness. And you realize, “Wow, I’m glad there’s plant breeding.” But the way that that’s been done traditionally is to use chemicals or even radiation to introduce genetic changes into seeds, and then plant breeders will select for plants that have traits that they want. The opportunity here with gene-editing in plants is to be able to make changes precisely. Not to drag along traits that you don’t want.
DALE: Really, the difference between what we’re doing, and conventional breeding is that they moved thousands of genes at one time, from one banana to another. We’re just moving one or two.
It’s worth noting nearly every technological advance is greeted with skepticism by at least a small segment of any population. And such skepticism may be magnified when it comes to something you’re going to put in your mouth.
SOUTHGATE: A great example for me is pasteurized milk.
The economist Douglas Southgate again.
SOUTHGATE: In the United States and other countries, lots of kids used to die from drinking raw milk — raw milk that had been exposed to flies or whatever. Pasteurization came along, that entire source of mortality went away, and yet there were people who swore up and down that they were never going to consume pasteurized milk. They claimed it didn’t have the same nutritional properties, didn’t taste the same, it was in one way or another undesirable.
There are still some raw-milk advocates; but most people, Southgate says:
SOUTHGATE: Most people ended up drinking pasteurized milk and I just have a hunch that if we produce a substitute for the Cavendish, or if we improve the Cavendish by moving in a gene from some other banana people will have a tough time telling the difference, and the product will win acceptance.
But big companies like Chiquita — or, to be fair, most big companies, in any industry, period — they’re pretty risk-averse. Honestly, they can’t afford to not be. But there’s another reason James Dale isn’t surprised at Chiquita’s resistance to his banana proposals.
DALE: The big banana companies, unfortunately, have had a history of not being terribly innovative. They are much more reactive. They don’t run big research and development divisions. Yeah, we talk to them, they take more of a “let’s just see what’s going to happen” reaction.
So how does Chiquita see a path forward for the endangered Cavendish banana?
BILES: We believe the path towards this is actually through improving breeding techniques. We feel that the logical first place for us as a leading branded premium quality banana to go is to try and go down, in a very sophisticated, in a very organized, in a very thorough way, the plant-breeding route.
And James Dale’s response to that?
DALE: There are some exceptionally good breeding programs going on in the world, but you don’t end up with Cavendish. You end up with something different to Cavendish. If we want to replace Cavendish with something probably very, very different, we’ll probably get that from the conventional breeding programs.
So if you want to have the Cavendish in the future?
DALE: Hey, if you want to have Cavendish in twenty years’ time, they’re probably going to be genetically modified, or they’re probably gonna be gene-edited.
That makes it sound as if the Cavendish as we know it may well be headed for extinction, depending on the banana companies’ decisions and the public’s response to genetic modification. So for the billions of people who eat trillions of bananas, a great many of them Cavendish, how panicked should they be?
BILES: We in the industry would say there’s no need to panic. The world is not going to run out of bananas.
But what about the Cavendish banana?
BILES: Okay, what we’re going to have to probably confront is actually having more varieties of bananas available in the future. As we protect the farming of bananas, we’re going to have to get used to how we can actually grow and commercialize and do the logistics for different bananas.
The prospect of exporting several different kinds of bananas would be an adjustment for the industry, of course. For consumers, less standardization might mean higher prices — but the prospect of finding several varieties of banana in a grocery store would hardly be unsettling, considering how many varieties of apples and grapes and citrus fruits are available. But in a world with so many options in most realms, there has been something nice, something unifying, about all of us eating the same banana. No matter how you eat it — straight out of the peel; cut up on cereal, if you’re feeling a little bit more ambitious. As you’ll recall, the banana historian Virginia Scott Jenkins told us about researching earlier banana recipes.
JENKINS: I found some very interesting menus, for very fancy occasions, that might have bananas on the menu.
Jenkins has a rather interesting banana recipe of her own, passed on from her mother.
JENKINS: You take a peeled banana, you put mustard on it. You wrap it in a slice of ham, and then you bake it in a cream sauce. And I’ve tried it on two husbands and neither of them could eat it. They thought that was just nasty.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Greg Rosalsky and Matt Hickey. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, and Corinne Wallace. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.[ + ]
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Virginia Scott Jenkins, cultural historian and author.
- Douglas Southgate, emeritus professor in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics at Ohio State University.
- Andrew Biles, former C.E.O. of bananas and pineapples at Chiquita.
- James Dale, professor of Agricultural Biotechnology at Queensland University of Technology.
- Jennifer Doudna, professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley.
- Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel.
- Bananas: An American History by Virginia Scott Jenkins.
The Most Interesting Fruit in the World (Ep. 375)
[ + ]