8. Doing good with Freakonomist Steve Levitt

"in some sense, the best you can hope for is to feel good about what you've done"

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Giving to Strangers is a newsletter for people who believe global problems require institutional, not just feel-good, solutions. Every week-ish, I share the ideas and people who are trying to make the world better, and offer a non-bogus thing that you can do to help.


^ Yes, that photo from 5 years ago. I was a second year in college.

This week on Giving to Strangers, I interview Freakonomics author Steve Levitt about the best ways to do good.

I like to tell people that I met Steve in the fall of my senior year at the University of Chicago, after I cold emailed him because I was writing a thesis on discrimination in Airbnb. I thought he might be a good person to talk to, and I was right: he was gracious enough to be my senior thesis advisor, and my first job after college was working on his research team. That story is true, and has the added benefit of making me seem like a real go-getter. But if I’m suuuper honest? We had actually met two years before that, after I stood in a line with other undergrads to take a selfie with him after a lecture he gave at UChicago because he’s nerd famous and I’m a nerd.

I think of Steve Levitt as one of the original pop social scientists. He’s most famously the best-selling author of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, and now the host of his own podcast, People I Mostly Admire. In our interview, he reveals how he tries to leverage his new platform, and the immensely popular Freakonomics podcast, for social good.

But Steve is a bit of a dichotomy, because even as Freakonomics has made him the only economist your parents can probably name, he’s not as active in the profession in the traditional sense (like publishing tons of papers). We talk about Steve’s disillusionment with academia (he is a professor at the University of Chicago), and the decision to instead focus on founding a new social good center.

In the interview below (edited for clarity), we talk about that new center, whether there’s any hope for individuals to do lasting good, and the life advice he gave me over lunch one day which has had a lasting impact on my life.

You can listen to the full interview on my podcast, WorkSchism, via Spotify here (or by searching WorkSchism on any platform):

If you find this excerpt interview interesting, I encourage you to listen to the full thing to hear us talk more about grad school, academia, and his projects. If you like it, please subscribe and rate. I’m a real human making that podcast from my kitchen table, so your support matters.

Enjoy, and I hope you get something out of Steve’s unconventional way of thinking.


Anya: I want to talk about social good, because that's something that both you and I really care about. In fact, a couple of years ago, I helped you at the very beginning of your new social good think tank. We worked together to hire some of the first analysts and worked on one of the first projects with the cook County Sheriff's department.

Can you just tell the audience what RISC is, the Radical Innovation for Social Change Center, and how you started it?

Steve: So it’s a [nonacademic] center at the University of Chicago, and it's a center that's just trying to do good. And I started it because after 20 plus years in academics, I reflected on the impact that I'd had — and of course I had bestselling books and whatnot — but I couldn't really point to any positive impact I'd had on any policy. And I also was becoming increasingly disenchanted just with the nature of academics, the focus on technicality and the bad incentives.

So there are people like, say, Esther Duflo, who I have immense respect for, and who does these great experiments showing some kind of an intervention in India that could have a magnificent effect on a billion people. And her incentive is not to actually go and implement anything, her incentive is really to go write her next paper and get it published in a good journal. And so, consequently, I think economists don't have nearly as big an impact — academic ones — because there's no real reason for Esther to stop what she's doing and try to implement a policy that she's she's figured out could work.

And, and so I felt like there was an opportunity to try and play a sort of middle ground where focusing on ideas that were relatively unpalatable. Because I think nonprofits, big foundations, tend to be motivated both by the desire to do good, and also by wanting to be invited to the right dinner parties, and to feel like they're going to be popular. And, you know me, I don't really care about being popular.

And so I thought, you know, the set of problems that are solvable and important, but not solved, are likely to be the ones where the answer is maybe a little unpopular. Where the Gates Foundations of the would not touch it because the fear is that, if they did touch it, people wouldn't like them.

And so that's kind of been our strategy. It’s to go out and look for big questions, and be willing to think differently, and not worry so much about whether the initial reaction of people will be negative. Because what I found is that a lot of times, if people have an initial negative reaction to an idea, if you can show them success, they can change their mind.

One concern I have is that RISC is at danger of trying to reinvent the wheel. Or at worst, kind of forge ahead into areas where other people know better than you, and you kind of have no experience in this space, and then you try and enter and be like, “Oh, okay, we're going to disrupt everything”, and then maybe doesn't work so well.

What do you say to that? And has you, have you found that to be a problem?

I think we haven't actually taken the approach that you may be expected us to do. So let me give you a couple examples.

So one example was on trying to get data science introduced into the math curriculum. So what we did was that I made a podcast, and the podcast gets heard by a lot of people. Jo Boaler at Stanford was one of the guests on the podcast. And she had never really thought much about data, but once we start talking about data, she, she took it on as her thing. She’s just full of energy, really good, super connected in that world.

And in the end, what was weird is that people came out of the woodwork. Like you're saying, they were literally dozens of organizations working on this problem. And I think by their own admission, many of them would say that they weren't being very successful. And so, in a weird way that I hadn't expected, RISC became a kind of glue that was holding this movement together.

So with Jo Boaler at Sanford, we had a conference where we invited anyone who cared, and tons of people came. And out of that there's a sort of consortium of teams that are working on it. So I think that was one of our real advantages we have at RISC is we have a huge platform through Freakonomics. And very quickly I realized that, and see that oftentimes as the best way to do things.

I'm super interested in climate change and what we can do about it. And I have a radical idea. I honestly think the simplest best thing we can do for the environment right now is to simply to pay Brazil a lot of money - like real money - not to develop the Amazon. Rather, not to deforest the Amazon. They can do whatever they want, subject to not deforesting the Amazon. Like they can make a lot of money off it through things that are compatible with the forest, like ecotourism.

But basically the Amazon provides so little income to Brazil that it’s almost trivial to the overall economy. But Brazil will get something like, you know, one one hundredth of the value of the Amazon, because the real value of the Amazon comes through what it does for climate change. And that's a public good.

And so there again, I did a podcast. Because like you said I have no competitive advantage about trying to actually go out into the Amazon and work with people. But I do have the podcast. And, admittedly, Biden had once mentioned this idea himself. But hadn't put it into his platform, but three weeks after that podcast, he in the debate, the first presidential debate mentioned this as being something you wanted to do.

So I don't know if there's any causal link between it, but at least there’s a Granger causality, where I had this podcast and he talked about it afterwards. Which I think is something we can do well. The other thing that we can do well, which is not what you're talking about — which is like, pretending that we have all the answers and doing stuff that other people are trying to do and not doing it well — is getting the way is being able to work with really big companies that have leverage. Like social media companies.

We've tried to work with [a large social media company] on various things. Because my view is, look, if we can get [a large social media company] to be like one tenth of 1% better on social good, then we've had a huge impact. And so, um, and so that's another thing that I think we can use because of reputation and contacts within these big firms.

We have the ability to try to do things that others may be can't do. So honestly, that's mostly what we've done. What we’ve done almost none of is to say, “Hey, I'm okay, we're against animal cruelty, and so we are going to introduce a new metric for what it means to be nice to animals and try to convince everyone that it's true,” when literally like 50 other groups are out doing that with different degrees of success. So I would say your criticism, if we were doing it, would be a very good one, but at least my own self perception is that that's not what we've we've done.

Like you said, you have a platform and you have a voice that people listen to. But one question that I've been puzzling over recently is how people who want to donate on an individual basis, who wanted to do individual good, but don't have any kind of power, can make an impact. That's why I launched Giving to Strangers, which explores those questions.

So, what do you think about that dichotomy? And I'll gladly take any of your ideas about which global problems you think individual donations or action can actually make an outsize difference in.

Steve: That's a really difficult problem. It's a problem, primarily, I think of information. In the sense that a person like me or you who's looking from the outside at any particular nonprofits has a really hard time understanding if that nonprofit is doing anything, any good. It's just extremely difficult.

That's the first thing, even if they are doing something good, it is almost impossible for an outsider to determine whether on the margin, extra dollars will help them do any better. ‘Cause then many places could be doing amazing things, but more money might not help them.

An example, being the Smile Train, which I work closely with and I think was an amazing nonprofit at the time, maybe not so much anymore. I began working with them because I thought they were amazing, and I got to know them and I came to believe more and more they are amazing. And primarily what I worked on with them was fundraising, and we were really good at it. And by the time we were done, they had $500 million in the bank.

[Laughs]

They couldn't find a way to actually spend their money on doing more cleft operations. So yeah, they were an organization that, I would say, was as good as any nonprofit in the world, dollar for dollar, but they just didn't need money.

Anya: So you're saying we would need more organizations like GiveWell or animal charity, evaluators who give people that information about. What, what the nonprofit is actually doing.

Yeah, so that is true. But those organizations also have a difficult job, in that every nonprofit is trying to tell a story about why they're so good.

So if you want to know that your money is helping, I think the closer you stay to home, the easier it is to know that. Right? If you can be part of an organization, volunteer at the organization, if you can spend time with the people or the animals or the trees that that organization is trying to help, you can get a pretty good feel about whether the organization is doing a good job. So I'd say if your goal is impact, I think staying close to home is a good strategy because it allows you to overcome that information problem a little bit better.

But I also think — and this is going to sound stupid, but — in some sense, the best you can hope for is to feel good about what you've done. And so not nose around too deeply into exactly what the charity you're giving money to is doing, and to just enjoy the glow of the story that your charity is telling.

E.O. Wilson was the professor who had the biggest impact on me. He is an evolutionary biologist. And he basically taught our class that each individual is meaningless on a global scale, where global is across the planet or across time.

And he said that you can get depressed about that, or you can just have a local impact. Because for your friends and family, you're really important. And if you do really good things for your friends and family, then you are having the impact. And that's kind of the scale at which you can hope to operate.

And so I think maybe in the end, it's not crazy to just say, look, I can't help people in South Sudan or I can't save the planet from apocalypse, but like, I can go on a podcast with Anya and spread the word, or maybe it can help her get good guests in the future, or whatever.

And that's a very local impact, but it might just be in the end what adds up to a life that feels like it was done well.

Anya: So let's close out with something that I wish I could ask way more people and sometimes do. We once got lunch on the Chicago campus and I asked you to give me three pieces of life advice that you would give to one of your daughters. And I'm curious what your answer to that would be now.

One thing I believe strongly in is that we all have a bias towards the status quo. And so whenever you're having trouble making a decision, I think the right decision is almost always the one that is the biggest change from your current path in life. I'm not saying change what you do all the time. But I think if you've been lying awake at night for weeks or months, you've been going back and forth, or you've been wondering about something, then at that point you should say to yourself, “Okay, I’m basically in different between these two things. And when I'm in different, it means that all my natural biases will push me towards the status quo. So I should make the big change.”

So I think that's a good piece of, it's really hard to follow. I mean, I don't even follow up very well my own in life.

That's life advice that has guided me through everything from whether or not I should break up with someone to whether or not I should quit my job. I feel like that's one of the only principles that I really have taken on.

Okay, so that's good. So I wish I did better because I would say that if I look back at the last 20 years, it's the set of things that I didn't change that I think were the mistakes for sure. And look, I'm not that good at taking my own advice.

The second thing, which I had said at the time, which I still abide by, is to think about worst case scenarios and to really try to experience them. Like actually live like the worst case. And then to ask yourself, in which case we have the deeper regret? Because I think that regret is one of the most pernicious and damaging emotions.


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