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Full transcript: Freakonomics co-founder Stephen Dubner on Recode Media

“Freakonomics is a kind of world view that tries to use data, empiricism, common sense and psychological insight to understand and explain the way the world actually works.”

Closing Gala: 'Freakonomics' At The 2010 Tribeca Film Festival
Stephen Dubner (l) and Steven Levitt, the co-founders of Freakonomics
Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

On a recent episode of Recode Media, hosted by Peter Kafka, Freakonomics co-founder Stephen Dubner talked about writing, diversity and how economic anxiety ushered Trump into the White House.

You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Media on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcherand SoundCloud.

Transcript by Celia Fogel.

Peter Kafka: I’m here with Stephen Dubner, who was just asking about Digital Media. I think I’ve explained it to him: The people who make and distribute this podcast so you can hear it for free.

Stephen Dubner: I knew that. I was curious about, you know, in this ecosystem of what I’ve started to think of as “peak podcast.”

We’re already in peak podcast? Oh man.

[laughs] It’s either peak or bubble.

Here’s the traditional startup entrepreneur answer to any of these questions: “It’s early innings.”

Yeah, like most typical answers, I find them mostly garbage. Look, I’m the last person in the world to predict the future. In fact, I’m a devout advocate of not predicting much, because it’s hard. But it’s a really interesting time to be making podcasts, I’ll say that. As someone who’d kind of ... honestly, I’ve kind of converted. I’m no longer at the moment a writer of books. For the first time in fifteen years, I’m not actively in the middle of writing a book.

You’re all-in on audio.

Well, I wouldn’t say I’m all-in at the moment, pretty close to it. But yeah. And I’m having a blast.

If someone’s listening to this podcast and they don’t know who Stephen Dubner is, we should introduce Stephen Dubner.


Stephen Dubner is one of the co-founders of the Freakonomics — can I call you an empire?

You can. I would disagree, but sure, whatever you want. [laughs]

Started as a book, is now multiple books, podcasts …

Yeah, podcast. Well …

There’s two podcasts, right?

Well, the other one has nothing to do with Freakonomics. Actually, I’m on my fourth podcast now.

Okay, we’ll go through that. There’s a movie, which you can watch for free on Netflix.

Again, that had our name on it, we didn’t make it.

Has your name on it, you’re in it! I’m going to count it in your work.

We didn’t make it is what I’m saying.

And there’s Twitter ...

We were very active on our blog back when blogs were podcasts. So that’s why it’s interesting to be in peak podcast now.

I do think that metaphor is right. It’s 2005 and everyone has a blog.

But you know, interestingly, there’s still a lot of blogs, [though] not as many, and some of them are great. There are still several blogs that I read if not every day, close to every day.

And some turned out to be businesses, or were acquired by other businesses, and I think that’s maybe where podcasting goes. If you don’t know what Freakonomics is, what’s the best way to describe broadly what you guys do at Freakonomics, you and your co-authors Steve and Mike?

Well, I do have this wonderful co-author who’s also a very good friend, and it’s really just good fortune that we got together. I’m a writer by training who fell deeply — you know, as a journalist, I’d written about a lot of different things. I’d written a few books, and one of the things I’ve always loved about journalism in long form, books and magazine pieces, is getting to a) go long, and b) abandon one topic when you’re done with it and go to something and get totally enmeshed.

So I’d done religion and sports, and I’d written a lot about entertainment, because I used to play music and I like theater and all that kind of stuff. But then about 12, 13 years ago I got really into economics, which was a weird thing to get into. But it wasn’t regular economics. It was what we now know as behavioral economics, and it was really the breakthrough of Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky, these two guys who should be more famous than they are. They’ll be more famous very soon. Michael Lewis has just written a book called "The Undoing Project."

Oh, they’re the new Michael Lewis book? That’s great.

They are the new Michael Lewis book and it’s about the friendship and the relationship between these two guys. So the story itself is good, but the work that they did— and then Amos died tragically quite young in, I think, his 50s — but Danny Kahneman went on to become what I think is one of the most important thinkers of this era because he changed the way that we think about thinking and how we think about making decisions. And although he was a psychologist by training, his work wended its way into economics, with the help of a few midwives.

I always loved psychology as a discipline., I almost became a psychiatrist or psychologist after I quit being a rock n’ roller. I decided not to, but I always loved it. And then economics, regular classic economics, was not all that interesting to me, but the blend of psychology and economics is to me a sweet spot.

So Freakonomics started off as — was it a book first? Or was it a movie and then it became a book?

So I was writing a book about what I called then the psychology of money, or kind of behavioral economics. This was several years back. I was actually well into the book and I was asked to write an article for the New York Times Magazine, where I used to work, about a fellow named Steve Levitt at the University of Chicago, a very interesting young economist who had nothing to do with what I was writing about. I ultimately wrote about him, and that piece turned into the collaboration of Freakonomics.

And that first piece you wrote about him was about what?

The year, you mean? Or what was it about literally?

Literally the first thing you wrote about Steve Levitt. What was he doing that got you attached to him?

Honestly, the reason they asked me to write about him was a reason I didn’t want to write about him, which is [that] he had just won an award, the John Bates Clark Medal. [It’s] a big academic award, but I’ve always learned that writing about someone after they’ve won an award is a terrible idea. Because you want to write about the thing they’re doing now that the world doesn’t know about yet, right? Not something they won an award for.

Fortunately, this was a fairly academic award that no one really knew about. So he had just done a bunch of interesting research, unconnected, about all different kinds of things. Crack dealing, baby names, real estate sales, collusion among sumo wrestlers, connected by nothing other than — and this is really what Freakonomics is — a kind of world view that tries to use data and empiricism and common sense and psychological insight to understand and explain the way the world actually works, as opposed to the way that our corporate and media and political and societal overlords like to convince us [is] the way the world works.

Those overlords, they got us in all kinds of trouble. [SD laughs] When you mentioned Michael Lewis, the lightbulb went off for me. I think of Michael Lewis, and the stuff that you guys do, and then the work that Malcolm Gladwell has done, as all along parallel tracks and similar themes, which is: You take complicated ideas, very often about science or, in Michael Lewis’s case, finance, you explain them in plain English to people, and then you say, “Here’s how everyone thinks these things work, but actually, surprisingly, it’s the opposite.” Or, “You didn’t actually realize it, but this guy off in some weird corner here thought this thing, everyone thought he was wrong, turns out he was right.”

And Michael Lewis’ stories, there’s always the guy and there’s some asymmetry of information and he goes against the grain and he wins a great victory or at least does not get fired. [SD laughs] And you guys have sort of similar approaches, right? “You think this should be this way, actually it’s this way.” And very often, or in the past, it’s been controversial, right?

Sometimes, yeah. I really admire Malcolm and Michael. I know both of them. I know Malcolm better because he’s in New York. Michael I actually edited once or twice when I was an editor at the Times Magazine. Michael’s a great writer. Malcolm’s a beautiful writer.

I see big differences between the three of us but I certainly understand why we look to be a group. One of the biggest differences I think between what we do and what Malcolm does is in our books — at least, in the Freakonomics books, versus Malcolm. Malcolm will take one idea, beautiful, clean, simple idea, and then find and assemble 20 stories that illustrate different facets of that idea.

Yes, with one through-line.

Right. We’re the opposite. We have no idea. Literally no central idea other than people respond to incentives, which is a little bit more of a theory than an idea, even.

And also, that alone is not controversial, right? That’s kind of the bedrock of economics.

True. Yeah, but then we use that to poke into whatever things that we feel is interesting and for which there’s data. And especially, we have a strong appetite for talking — in the podcast or writing — about things that other people aren’t talking about and thinking about, which seems hard.

As a journalist you know, when you’re learning to be a journalist, it seems so hard to find the stories that other people aren’t finding or to talk about ideas.

Right, because once you write it and everyone goes, “Oh my god, that’s amazing,” of course in retrospect it was obvious. But when you need to pitch it, someone will say, “Well why would people want to read that thing that no one wants to read about?”

Exactly. The weird thing is though, journalism — I’ve learned this the longer I’ve done it — is such a pack sport. And it’s the reason I never went into like daily beat journalism, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like being one of 40 people on the courthouse steps. I tried it a few times. Or one of 50 people being in the Knicks locker room or the Yankees locker room.

Yeah, the press conference.

It’s just not ... it wasn’t fun. And I’m going to have my version of the story that’s two degrees to the left or the right of everybody else, it just wasn’t exciting or challenging to me. So I really like finding the unheralded, which I think Michael and Malcolm do.

So you don’t really riff off of current events, I mean you’ll ...

With the Freakonomics radio podcasts, a little bit.

Given the election we just went through, this will be a week or two out after the election, people are going to be processing it, they’ll be processing it for a long time.

Do you look at the series of stories the night of the election, the day after the election, the weeks after the election, and go, “Oh, there’s a bunch of interesting stuff here, we should try to examine what really happened.” Or do you say, “You know what? There won’t be relevant data, data that we can parse through, for weeks or months or years.” Do you avoid a topic like that?

I think kind of neither. Well, I think more — maybe this is solipsism —but I think more like, yeah, everything that is happening is explained by the kind of stuff that we and other people have been writing about for the past 20 years. First of all, people are bad at understanding probability so [laughs] ... When you’ve got a binary choice, when you’ve got an underdog, to think that there’s no probability that the underdog will win is a pretty absurd, mathematically absurd, idea.

We’ve written a lot about the folly of prediction and we’ve written a lot about what economists call declared preferences versus revealed preferences — you know, what people say — and some things specifically about polling. Also with Freakonomics radio we did a few episodes in the last few years about the power of the presidency itself, which I found to be pretty ...

Right, that one you just replayed recently.

Yeah, then we did another one that we updated. So I for years have been kind of just arguing with not a ton of ... because this is a hard thing to compile evidence of the typical sort that we use. I’ve basically been arguing that the president and who the president and what the president does matters a lot less than people think and that there’s partly just a misunderstanding of leverage and partly it’s this kind of philosophical or almost theological embrace of what Thomas Carlyle used to call “The Great Man Theory of History.”

I don’t know if Carlyle called it that, that’s what his theory was. But basically it’s weird. The U.S. presidency is a weird position because you’ve got a lot of juice in the international realm but not nearly as much in the domestic and especially in the economy. That’s what drives me really crazy is people thinking, “Well the president can just do this with unemployment, do this with the economy.”

Right, and the president, once he or she takes power, usually turns around and says, “I can’t do all this for you. I don’t know what you guys ... I know I told you during the last 18 months of the campaign I could fix it.” Although I was listening to “What Can the President Do,” that episode that you replayed, and I think you sort of preface it by saying, “This might give you some comfort.”

One thing that struck me about that episode was it seemed to be set up, a lot of folks saying there’s limits to what the president can do, he can do this but not that. And he can be a figurehead in international affairs that matter. To me it was all predicated on the idea that that president would be from a standard spectrum of right to left. It seems like we have a real outlier here.

Yeah, although you know what’s interesting about watching an outlier and watching someone to whom ... I won’t say to whom the rules don’t apply, but someone who’s decided that the rules are kind of ridiculous.

So I have no idea. I think, honestly, I think it’s going to be pretty exciting times. But I will say this. I did a followup episode — so that episode I originally put out probably five or six years ago, it’s something I’ve thought about a lot and have updated through the years. But then very recently I put out a piece, it was an interview with a really wonderful legal scholar at the University of Chicago named Eric Posner who happens to be the son of Richard Posner who’s a really brilliant thinker and writer.

Eric, who’s pretty brilliant himself, wrote a piece in Daedelus arguing that the presidency is basically just shy of a dictatorship the way that presidents have over the centuries — and recent decades especially — just kind of amassed leverage in a number of ways, including the fact that Congress is kind of underpowered, undermanned and delegates a lot of stuff that they’re not capable of doing to the executive branch. And it adds up to this situation whereby the presidency is, if you’re the president, you want to make it something close to a dictatorship in certain realms.

But then he makes a really interesting argument; it gets a little nuanced. The president is constrained almost not at all by the Constitution — that’s, you know, passé — not so much by Congress, but actually by a few other things. His or her own party, the nation, the populus. And there might be some other constraints.

But it will be interesting. When I talked to Eric Posner, this episode was called something like “Has the U.S. Presidency Become a Dictatorship?” [laughs] which sounded really extreme to a lot of people when we put it out a couple months ago. It was interesting that Posner really engaged with the possibility of a Trump presidency, which very few people at that time were willing to. And so I’m really glad, because he said some things. Yeah, if Donald Trump really believes this about immigrants, he really can do this. And he talked about, obviously, President Obama and the last several presidents have executed a ton of executive actions. But Obama’s, he argued, were more legally sophisticated and powerful.

You mentioned earlier, you think predictions are a fool’s game and you thought people don’t understand probability. It seems like you were edging your way toward a media critique. I mean, a lot of people have said, “Oh the media’s flooded in the following ways. They’ve let us down in the election in many ways.” Do you think that the Nate Silvers of the world and the Upshots of the world shouldn’t have been putting up those charts saying there’s a 95 or 75 or 65 percent chance of a Hillary victory?

Well, Nate on 538, if I recall correctly, as of election day I think he had Clinton’s chances at about 69 point something percent, right?

Yeah, he got a lot of grief for it, said it was too negative.

Right, well what’s interesting is, look, you can give — especially the more enumerate you are, the more angry you can get at any probabilistic assertion because it’s not certainty. It’s meant to be a probability. So if I wanted to defend Nate I could say, hey, 69.3 was a whole lot better than Upshot, [which] had 80 something, I think, for Hillary the night before. And I’m sure most of the other models were looking like almost a hundred percent. Certainly the punditocracy, you couldn’t find anyone to go on any media that said that Trump had a chance, much less [would] win.

By the way, it’s changed. Two election cycles ago, you said, “Well, the word on the street is X and Y and Z,” and then it would have been spun a lot. And now I think because of Nate Silver and what he did four years ago, he says, “Well, those are the numbers.” Those are the numbers.

Yeah, so what Nate does ... Nate is a super-smart guy and I like him a lot. What he does is, in fact, not that hard and not that magical. He takes good data and some not-so-good data, but weights the good data heavier, and basically the more data you have, the better a prediction you can make.

So look, we’re in New York City, it’s November, it’s cold now. We could have told you that it will be colder now than it was in July almost without exception because we have thousands and thousands and thousands of years of data that happens to be cyclical. So it’s not like you can’t predict anything ever. Of course you can.

The thing about Nate is when people started railing at him afterwards, saying, “Hey, you’re the wizard,” first of all, he’s still taking heat for saying way back last year that Trump had essentially a zero chance. So he made a mistake and he copped to it, what are you going to do? That’s what you get for predicting, you’re going to be wrong.

But then people went after him for saying, “Hey, you were saying Clinton was going to win,” and he was saying, “No, I was saying it was a 69 point whatever percent chance.” But then I saw one tweet that he wrote that if I had been hanging out with him I would have said, “No, don’t send that one because you’re making their mistake.”

His one was something to the effect of, and I’m sure I’m getting it wrong, it was something like, “If I’m a seismologist and I predict a 69.8 percent chance of no earthquake, and there’s an earthquake, what are you going to say? Come on, it was an earthquake.” The problem with that is that’s a horrible — as a thinker and a writer — that’s a really bad parallel.

The tweet that struck me is [one where] he said, “Well, the data that would have guided you to a correct answer in 2012, things like internal polling and lists of other metrics, didn’t turn out to be useful in 2016, and the things that would have predicted the correct answer in 2016, including social media, crowd sizes, would have got the wrong answer in 2012.”

And I’m sure he’s not just saying, “Hey, what’re you going to do?” because it’s his job to figure this stuff out. But to me that was really striking, that things could change that radically.

You can look at predictions throughout history and they’re bad. But then, after the people make their bad predictions, they always have an ex-post story to explain, “I was actually right, I’m actually very smart. The reason my prediction didn’t come true is because, well, things were different.” Well, of course things are different! That’s what the future is.

So Nate saying that an earthquake could have happened, an earthquake and an election are obviously quite different in that one is a binary event, you’ve got two choices. There’s a red choice and a blue choice and that’s it. So any random earthquake is way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way less likely than the underdog winning in a two-party election. And that in his response, that was a sloppy response. He’s really good, though.

Let me ask you about a podcast you just aired a couple of weeks ago. It’s about trust, and one of the big ideas there is that trust between people and sort of throughout a society —

Social trust we call it, yeah.

Social trust, incredibly important — and what you see happening is [that] countries that have heterogeneous populations tend to have lower social trust. You have high social trust in countries like Norway and Sweden.

The U.S. has been getting more and more diverse over time. It left me with an unsettled perspective, because if you’re a traditional, right-thinking liberal like me, you celebrate diversity, hurray, it’s great for the country, and you seem to be suggesting that’s going to cause real problems for us in terms of keeping the fabric of the country together.

Social trust in this country has been low, relatively low, since the 1960s, and there’s a lot of explaining, a lot of potential explainers.

Television was thought to be one. It kept people inside their homes, inside their own minds, [with] less interaction and so on. And it decreased all kinds of civic participation. The famous book "Bowling Alone" by Bob Putnam kind of described this world where people were not doing things communally the way they used to.

So there are a number of interesting things here. As you said, social trust tends to be higher among a group that is pretty homogenous. That said, nobody’s making the argument except for maybe some isolationists from every camp, and I’m sure there’s isolationists in every camp, who say, “You know what? I don’t want to be around anyone who isn’t just like me.” There’s always been that and there will always be that. And I don’t think it’s for me or you to say people shouldn’t have those feelings. Some people are really only comfortable in a small whatever.

But all the smart money, at least — and I think most of, as you put it, the kind of right-thinking people — agree that diversity is not only a right, I have the right to go somewhere even if I’m not like everybody else, but it’s also a boon, a strength. So economically, certainly that’s the case.

Right, and again, that’s sort of the orthodoxy now of like, if you read the Financial Times or the Economist. Or if you’re participating in the information economy, whether you think about it or not, that’s sort of built into your world view. It seems like one of the takes on the election is people say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, actually that doesn’t work for a lot of people, and this is a repudiation of that, and we’re going to actually close our borders and maybe we’re going to push people out who don’t look like us.” Or, “Maybe there won’t be any overt racism, but it’s better if we’re all the same.”

Yeah, it’s always hard for me. You know, I’m obviously not a sociologist. I’m not an any kind of -ologist, but I know a lot. [laughs] And I always think that that kind of response, that kind of what we think of as xenophobic or just fearful or racist or bigoted or whatever it is, anti-blank, is usually more of a symptom than a cause of behavior. I think it’s the response of people who feel unhappy, or they can’t get traction, or especially, and this is something we learn from Kahneman and Tversky, loss-aversion, we tend to put more weight on loss than we do on a commensurate size of gain. And you see that.

The other thing is, even though we think of ourselves as absolute animals, like if you ask me, "How many units of X would it take for you to be happy?" Units of dollars, food, units of happiness, whatever. And I say the number, and you give it to me, I’ll be very happy. Until I find out that my next-door neighbor has 2X, and then I’m miserable. So we think we’re absolute animals, but really, we’re relative animals, and that’s a big problem. There are a lot of things about being human that makes it really hard to kind of get along.

But here’s the thing that I’m thinking about your question in terms of social trust in this country, and maybe this is just optimism, I don’t think that there’s this massive widespread zeal to pull back and to disassemble our population. What I do think, however, is that when people are feeling anxious about a number of things, they look for something that they think will make them feel good in the short term.

Yeah, that doesn’t reassure me at all [SB laughs] because this is one of the takes. “Well, people might have voted for a racist candidate who had racist policies, but they’re not racist. It’s a symptom, they’re economically insecure or they have some other issue, and they’re willing to look past the xenophobia or racism.”

Maybe you’re right. But the thing that struck me is the day that Trump went to the White House to meet with Obama, it was an interesting day because everyone was expecting a short meeting, it turned out to be a long meeting, and then they had a presser — not quite a presser, but they had a little conversation in the Oval, I guess afterwards, which was more interesting I think than most of the ...

It was the imagery that was so striking.

The image was striking. Trump’s seeming humility and his deference. Obama’s, you know ... Obama, I just happen to think, carries off situations very, very well for someone — you know, he’s just good at that kind of thing, and he was good in that moment, and obviously he was very unhappy about Trump winning but he didn’t show it, to his credit.

But here was the thing that I thought was most bizarre. They said, or one of them said, I don’t remember which one said, “This is the first time we’ve met.” And I thought, wait a minute, Donald Trump who’s about as visible and high-profile a kind of person as exists on the planet and has been running for president for the past 15 years really, and President Obama, they never sat down?

And I thought, had that happened and had that happened among every group of people or individuals who find themselves cowering behind a wall or putting up a wall to keep somebody out, I think you immediately melt about 50 percent of the aggression and garbage. That is what I learned from that episode we did on social trust. I think it was called “Trust Me.” It’s about when you create opportunities for people to spend time with others who have very different everything for them.

I’ll tell ya, when I worked at the New York Times, I always felt really fish out of water because I wasn’t from an upper middle class suburban or urban Ivy League background by a long shot, which most of my peers were. I grew up a poor kid on a farm in upstate New York from this weird family that had been Catholic and Jewish and ...

Went to Appalachian State University.

Went to Appalachian State University, I had a military ...

I think you were probably the only person at the Times who had a degree from there.

I’m guessing that’s the case, yeah. I grew up, my father was World War II, my oldest brother was military, and we were a very religious family. I moved to New York, most people would look at me as a regular kind of Upper West Side …

You look and fit the part of Upper West Side New York.

Yeah, right, but my life experience has been around a lot of people who are very different. And that doesn’t meant that I carry all that experience with me all the time, but I feel like it’s been a big benefit to me, having been exposed to a lot. People who think very, very, very differently than, let’s say, the standard mind-set of the Times. That’s what I think.

So when we talk about diversity, I think it’s nuts. First of all, when we talk about race in this country we usually mean black and white, which is nuts. There’s a lot about race beyond black and white. And when we talk about diversity, there’s a lot about diversity that goes beyond race and gender. There’s all different kinds of people’s feelings and affiliations with religion and with the military and with the kind of communities they have. And it’s a spectrum that we’re really good, in the media, rat reducing to an idiotically narrow spectrum, and I think that’s a problem.

I agree. I was going to choose my words carefully and then I realized, it’s fine, it’s my podcast ...

No you can insult me. I love ...

Yeah, yeah, you’re a white guy, I can insult you. I’ll think about how to insult you correctly. We’re going to hear from our sponsors, who I would never insult. We’ll be back in a second.

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We’re back here with Stephen Dubner. I was trying to figure out the right way to insult his ethnicity, and I’m not going to do it. But your history is interesting. So you were explaining that you got to the New York Times, but you didn’t get there [via] the traditional path. How did you break into big-time journalism? Because at one point, you were an editor at the Times Magazine, right?

I was, yeah.

And at one point, that was the thing that I thought was the best job ever.

Oh, believe me, me too.

And still is today one of the best magazines ever. How do you break into that world, especially if you do not come from an Ivy League education, if you don’t have that sort of funnel that gets a lot of people into a place like the Times?

A lot of people talk about when they get to a position that they hadn’t envisioned they would ever get to, which was the case for me, that you never stop feeling an imposter. And I think imposter is not quite the right word for me. I just felt like not quite ... I was going to say one of the guys on the Oakland A’s in Michael Lewis’ "Moneyball." I didn’t feel undervalued, I actually felt maybe overvalued. But when you don’t think that you’re all that in any realm, it’s not about the cliché of working harder, although I do work hard. I’ve already been going, I got up at about three o’clock this morning to write, because I had something to write, and I do that pretty routinely.

Nooo. You wake up at three? Five, I get.

Five I would prefer, but today I had a Freakonomics radio episode that needed a lot more, the script needed a lot of work, and …

You set an alarm for three? Or you popped up at three because you had an idea?

I set an alarm for three. So I do work hard, and I don’t mean to brag, although I realize that I just did the old brag, but …

[laughs] It was a humble brag.

It wasn’t even a humble brag, I’m not even good enough to do a humblebrag. [PK laughs] But I think that when you feel like you don’t necessarily have the pedigree, then you constantly self-assess and you constantly look for how to improve tactically and technically and strategically.

This is one of the reasons why I really love the work of this guy Anders Ericsson, this psychologist who’s written a book called “Peak,” the research of which was turned into what Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in “Outliers” — the 10,000-hour rule. It’s about the notion that a lot of us work hard and a lot of us "practice a lot," but deliberate practice is a different thing.

Deliberate practice means constantly trying to get feedback on how you’re doing, what you’re doing. Constantly picking apart the specifics of how you’re trying to do something. It means relying on outside feedback as well and focusing much more on your technique or your work than the outcome. So it’s very easy to get distracted by, “I worked hard on this book” — or whatever — “and people liked it.”

Thus I should ... yeah.

Most of my friends in New York are writers. And most of them are smarter than me, most of them are better educated than I, etc. But my books, for whatever reason, have been more popular. Now, I never look at that as being a product of anything other than basically pure luck. Because if you start to measure your self-worth on the outcome of the thing, I think you just kind of coast. And I’m way too insecure to want to coast.

I’m probably going to butcher it a bit, but one of the things I remember about the Gladwell version of the 10,000 hours was, it’s not just that you practice for 10,000 hours or that you practice with deliberate intent, is that you’re in an environment and a place and a structure that allows you to take advantage of that.

Yeah, Malcolm’s argument, it’s really interesting. So this guy Anders Ericsson, he was a research psychologist at Florida State, and he’s done tons of work with tons of academics about what’s called deliberate practice. That camp didn’t love Malcolm’s interpretations, not surprisingly.

Because he had a structural argument. I mean, it’s not just “work hard and everything is going to pan out for you.”

That was part of it. But Malcolm’s argument that I found so interesting, and you know I’ve known Malcolm a long time and I’ve read him a long time, I never really thought about it until recently when someone, I think one of his former editors, pointed out to me that Malcom’s a very political person. But it was subtle for a long time, and now it’s become less so. And I enjoy it, because I kind of do like my politics not-hidden.

So what I was getting to was, how did you break into the Times? Because the Times I think now is trying hard to ...

Now they’ll hire anybody [laughs].

They’ll hire anybody, they’re actually trying to find people who don’t look and talk like them, although you kind of look and talk like most people who work at the Times ...

I do, yeah.

But as an outsider, how did you break in?

Again, just luck. I know the actual story of how I got referred there, but I’m not allowed to say it because it was a secret. Someone referred me to someone there …

There you go.

… but that someone was not supposed to refer me, because that someone was friends with someone who was running the shop where I was at the time. It could have been seen as a poaching, so I’ve been sworn to secrecy.

Okay, but there were already some secret handshakes involved. We can skip that part.

[laughs] I was a musician, always a writer, I played with a rock band, we got a record contract, moved to New York, I decided to quit, decided that being a rock star wasn’t as fun as it looked was not going to be my life, quit, went to graduate school ...

You gotta say the name of the band.

The band was called The Right Profile, which was named for a song by the Clash on London Calling.

Which is the best Clash album.

It is the best Clash album, and the Clash is one of the best rock and roll bands.


And then I went to grad school for fiction writing, because I thought I wanted to teach college and write novels. I taught college at Columbia for a year as part of my program, I decided I did not want to teach college. And then I got a job at New York Magazine. I was there four years and then was offered a job at the New York Times magazine.

So the standard path.

Yeah, pretty standard path.

Rock band, New York Magazine, New York Times.

Exactly right. Youngest of eight, Jewish, Catholic, rock band, yeah. [laughs]

Let’s talk about you’re doing now. I think one of the interesting things is you started with a book, what, 2005-ish?


There’s been, what, four books since?

Yes, three real, then one was a compilation of blog writings.

And it’s now a brand, and as we were discussing at the beginning of the podcast, there are many different things emanating from it. Steve Levitt is still doing research, right?

Yeah, you know, we’ve both changed a lot. So we’re very good friends, I’m happy to say, good collaborators. Right now, we’re not actively working on a book together, because we really have used up his research. But he is now working on something, it’s not quite a scan of research as it is a kind of way to look at economics generally, that if it works we will do another book. So fingers are crossed.

So you write the first book, you’re not thinking it’s going to sell millions of copies.


Then it does. And then do you guys actively think, “All right, we’re smart guys, we should think about how we can do something with this other thing going while we got a hit book that’s amazing.”

Nah. We were both, in that realm, very unambitious. I think we both felt like we got way luckier than we deserved.

You get a lottery ticket, it’s a winning lottery ticket, you go “Woohoo!” and then you think you’re done?

And then the publisher immediately said, “Write another one! Next year!” And we said it would be terrible, because the first book took basically 15 years worth of Steve Levitt’s research, done with many many collaborators, that took thousands of person hours, maybe tens of thousands ...

The publisher says, “Give me more,” you say, “Well that’s ... we did it.”

Exactly. But that’s the way publishing is, it’s the way Hollywood is, it’s the way everything is.

But if it’s an Avengers movie, you can make a new Avengers movie, because you make up some stupid plot about a bunch of comic-book heroes.

True. So we ended up doing a second book, “Super Freakonomics,” which was pretty good, and I think it took us five years. And we felt good about that, and that one did pretty well, and then we waited another, I think, four or five years before we put out a third one, which by then, we wanted to do something quite different.

That one was called “Think Like a Freak,” which was a little bit more strategic, a little bit more teachy. I really like all the books we’ve done. We haven’t yet written a book that we didn’t like, so that’s a …

So you’re producing some more books, but then at some point you say, “All right, this could be a blog,” where you’re sort of …

No, the blog began before the first book was even out.

Oh, really?

Yeah, you know, it’s 2005, got to have a website. And then it was actually really fun to have a blog when you publish a book that then blows up. Because people are wanting to continue the conversation, and we had a place to do it. That’s my least favorite thing about books. You work four years in a room, you put it out, and it’s dead. It doesn’t change, how do you keep that conversation going?

So the blog was version one of keeping the conversation going, and that was great for, like, four or five years when blogs were a central thing. And then Facebook began to aggregate, and blogs changed, and so on. And then our podcast, Freakonomics radio podcast, became the second way to keep the conversation going.

But for a while, the Freakonomics blog was part of the Times, you guys owned it, and the Times was trying to figure out, “do we make people pay to read the Times, is it free,” they went back and forth. And during that time, you were kind of like the star, one of the stars, of the website. And you were sort of the precursor of Nate Silver bringing 538 there. So at one point, you guys said, “We’re leaving, because we’re going to go create a multimedia thing.”

Well, it coincided with the fact that they were going to the paywall and we had not a lot of desire …

So this is what, 2010-ish?

Sounds about right. Yeah. And we didn’t have a lot of desire to be behind a paywall, but their business model was also not working as well. I mean, they were hemorrhaging money and it just wasn’t ...

Right, this is when people were publishing stories about the fact that they were going to be bankrupt and they had to borrow money from Carlos Slim. So it wasn’t that you guys had big designs to create a multimedia empire, you just wanted to get out from under the wall?

it was also a little bit complicated by then I had started this podcast, which Levitt was nice enough to once in a while make an appearance [on], but the podcast was just something that I thought would be fun to do. I’d started the podcast which had a ... So there was the Freakonomics radio website. Then there’d been this movie that we kind of went along with but didn’t make, so there was a website for that.

You don’t love this movie. I watched it last night, it’s entertaining.

I like it fine. I don’t think it made us look idiotic. There were a lot of things that, as a writer, you’re like, “Well, they got that wrong, they got that wrong.” And we told them, and we had what they called some kind of approval, but they just laughed at us when told them.

[laughs] You don’t have that kind of approval.

Exactly. It’s approval in theory only. But part of the reason of taking the blog back from the New York Times is [that] I just wanted to have a website where all our stuff was. We never looked at that, we never look at most things, as profit centers. That’s been part of the fun of what I and we have been doing for the past 10, 12 years: You do what you want to do, and fortunately, if there’s some things that make enough money to keep things going, great. But then you follow what you’re into, and sometimes you pay a lot of money to do it. Like this podcast that I just started, “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” I self-funded it. Every penny out of pocket.


Yes, sir.

But not for ... it’s a cool podcast, it’s a game show.

It is a game show. No. 1 on iTunes.

Super straight, super great concept. You bring in people off the street, there’s a celebrity panel, they stump the panel, it’s great. Super-accessible. But you self-funded it because you think that is going to be a business.

I don’t know.

You’re hoping it does.

Sure. I would rather succeed than fail, but what I did know is that now that I’ve written a bunch of things in different formats and had a bunch of different partnerships over the years, I know that as a writer — and even though the new show is a live journalism game show event, it’s still written, there’s still a concept and a theme and we kind of curate the whole thing — as a writer, there’s nothing more important to me than owning and controlling every single second. And that means that if I were to go with a partner who wants to have ...

It’s one of the reasons I’ve never done TV. TV is the one thing I haven’t done a lot, like our own show. We’ve gotten close, and then every time it gets to the 11th hour ...

Because there’s lots of cooks. By nature.

Oh man. A lot of cooks, and they control the temperature and they control what tools you can use and they say, “Here, come on out, now say your thing.”

It seems like you should have a Netflix show right now. Right? Because I don’t know if it’s going to be sustainable, but supposedly right now Netflix and Amazon compete to write you dumber and dumber checks and say, “Do whatever you want,” at least for a season or two.

I think if we were ever going to do something, it would have to be for someone that I would make a show and then license or sell it as opposed to having an investing partner. But TV is obviously more expensive than podcasts. The new podcast, I could afford to produce it myself. The other thing about TV is, I like radio and writing because if you want to be applauded once in a while you can get a little bit, but you’re not recognized. And I think that wanting to be recognized ...

You like being in a generic Upper West Side Zabar’s ...

I do. I do. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to be a rock star is I thought ... You know, as we were getting closer to [success], we got our record deal and I started to hang out with some bands who were a little successful, we played a bunch in the beginning with REM and they were getting really big.

And then I got to meet Bruce Springsteen, who I really really really really liked and admired. And this was right when he was exploding. And he was really one of the big reasons to convince me to quit rock and roll even though he didn’t know he said anything that led to that. But he basically was at this point — this was "Born in the USA," which was a long time ago — he said,”"If I had known what it would really be like to be this famous, I’d really rethink it.”

This is one of those rockstar popstar moviestar cliches that never resonates because if you’re a regular person you go, “That’s entirely impossible, you have limousines and machines and whenever you want to be famous you can step out from the limousine or the machine …”

Yeah, but think about what you’re describing there. Limousines, fine. Nice car, great. Machine, nice house, great. See, what you’re talking about now is just money. Fame, there’s money, there’s power, and there’s fame. Money I’m fine with, power I’m fine with, fame is costly. That’s what people don’t get.

Yeah again, I think it’s hard for just about anybody to process that, especially now since we are in a world where not only does everyone want to be famous but many people can become famous.

I don’t think they want to be famous, I think they want to be admired and adored and petted and loved.

They want recognition. Right?

They want recognition.

I was talking to someone who said, “One of our video stars,” or YouTube or BuzzFeed or whatever the medium was, “This person can no longer buy groceries.” And by the way, they’re not rich, they’re just famous enough that they get hassled when they go buy groceries.

That’s the worst combination. [laughs]

“And we have to go buy groceries for them.” But I think most people who are fiddling with their Facebook or their Snapchat think, “I would like to have that problem.”

I think so, because it’s very easy to conflate the good things about being recognized, like the money and the power. And yes, being recognized and, like I said, loved and applauded and adored, I get all that. Everyone wants all that. Being famous, I think, is much more costly than beneficial. I think very few people do a cost-benefit analysis on fame.

Should we end the podcast there or do you have one great nugget of knowledge?

Like a joke? Like I should have some routine?

Is there something you can impart with our listeners that’s going to help them make it through the end of the year?

The short answer is no, I don’t have any wisdom [laughter] like that but I’ll tell you the one Thanksgiving ... l love this time of year because I grew up in a family where the holidays were a big big deal and then they became bittersweet because my dad died when I was a kid right before Christmas. And then my mom died when I was thirty before Thanksgiving. But then the family, we spend Thanksgiving together so I think of Thanksgiving especially as a real family holiday.

And I think about this world of — I mentioned before — absolute versus relative. We all think we’d be happy if we got X and we find out someone we know has double X and we get really frustrated. My mom — who was not a philosophical person at all, she was extremely practical — she was raising eight kids on basically zero dollars, growing all our own food, making our own clothes and so on. But she had this one thing she said, it wasn’t like she said it all the time, I think she said it once but I always remembered it. She said, “Enough is as good as a feast,” and it’s what I’ve always lived by. Find your enough and you won’t be so greedy and hungry.

That is the best podcast close we’ve had to date. [SD laughs] Thank you very much, Stephen.

My pleasure Peter, thanks.

This is great.

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