Appalachian Perspective: Stephen J. Dubner

Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.

Stephen Dubner's successful book "Freakonomics" has been translated into 35 languages. It spawned a follow-up publication, an award-winning blog, a documentary and a public radio program. It also led this 1984 alumnus to become a regular contributor to ABC News and the NFL Network. His latest accolade, receiving the Distinguished Alumni award from Appalachian's Alumni Association.


Chancellor Kenneth Peacock: It doesn't get much better than this. Stephen Dubner's successful book "Freakonomics" has been translated into 35 languages. It spawned a follow-up publication, an award-winning blog, a documentary and a public radio program. It also led this 1984 alumnus to become a regular contributor to ABC News and the NFL Network. His latest accolade, receiving the Distinguished Alumni award from Appalachian's Alumni Association. We'll meet this intriguing writer coming up on Appalachian Perspective.

(Introduction music)

KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective. My guest today is "Freakonomics" author Stephen Dubner. Welcome Stephen.

Stephen J. Dubner: Thank you very much.

KP: It's good to have you back. We've met on this platform before. It's been about 6 years, but it's good to have you home.

SD: Thanks. It's always incredibly fun to come back here. I've only done it, I think, three times or four times since I was a student here. The pace of change in the last spell though is remarkable. So I can't believe how much the university has grown in all good ways, but it's also like coming back to any home. Just wonderful, all the good memories come flowing back at you. I like how the mind works. The good memories come flowing back. The bad memories somehow disappear which I'm very happy about.

KP: Well it's great to have you back. We sometimes get to catch up. I enjoy the opportunity to just sit down and visit with you, whether it's in New York or whether it's here. The last couple times have been in New York so I'm glad to have you home at your Appalachian home. Now your back for the alumni awards event later tonight and I understand that some friends of yours from college days have joined you.

SD: Yeah. I'll be honest with you, I was reluctant to invite people back to see me get an award because it felt a little self-serving. Like, dear old friend come see me get a plaque or whatever you're going to give me. So it took me awhile to work up the courage to say, you know, to invite them and say I'd love to see you and I don't know how recently you've been to Boone, but you might want to get back. The response from my old friends was just overwhelming, were oversubscribed. So not only did everyone we asked to come back come, but they suggested more and more people, so all of a sudden we've got this large contingent of friends and family, a couple professors, a couple of my favorite professors, many of whom hadn't been back in a while and some of whom I got to catch up with last night and they all felt the same as I have, which is the changes here in the last several years are remarkable, but that it still feels just like home. So basically what I'm trying to say is kudos to you and the University for maintaining that balance of growth with hanging on to all the things about Appalachian that made it special. I grew up in New York, New York State, up-state New York, very rural area. The reason I ended up at Appalachian were two reasons, number one is the honors program offered me a scholarship without which I would not have been able to consider coming, and two is when I visited campus, when I visited a few places down here, this was the one that spoke to me because it's so beautiful and rural and peaceful and relaxed. I went to UNC G, which I thought was a fine school, but it was far too big a city for me. Greensboro was too urban for me. So that same feeling still really applies here in Boone which I'm happy to see.

KP: Well I hope you notice the Appalachian community that is here, we're very proud of you and the great job that you have done. The recognition, it means a lot to have you among our family members. It's an honor for us.

SD: Well thanks very much.

KP: The young people that have come back with you, do you keep in touch in today's world?

SD: Yeah, so you know it's funny there were a few different circles of friends and acquaintances, you know, like anywhere in life. I had the people that I knew from, you know, school itself. The other people I met in the honors program originally. We lived together in a co-ed freshman honors dorm and there were a lot of very intense friendships forged then. Then there were some other friends who did other stuff from the newspaper and things like that where I participated. Then I was in this band when I was here and frankly, I'll be honest with you, the idea of me being a distinguished alumni...If you had looked at the freshman class of 19...whenever I came in...1980 and tried to find who among them might be a distinguished alumni, I would not have been on the top 100. Not even the top 1,000. I was not the model student in any way. Primarily because I got involved in this band that was formed with some other fellows here and that became really our major pursuit. So I went to class and I graduated, and so on, but the band became the center of our existence. You know, thinking back and coming back to visit, what's remarkable to think is how incredibly supportive the University was with the band even though it was an extra-curricular activity. So, you know, we'd practice in one of the music rooms in I.G. Greer. One of my favorite professors, Jim Winder, is a history professor who's now retired, he also taught the single most desirable course on campus at the time which was the history of rock n roll course, which all of us took. Jim Winder, who's the professor, came to our very first gig we ever played which was in the old student union. And just knowing that this thing that we're starting up, that wasn't directly related to the university, this band, was so embraced by the university community. It was a huge, huge boost to us. I wouldn't have happened had it not been for that.

KP: From upstate New York to Boone North Carolina, and my understanding from what I read, this happened when you were 16 that you first came to campus.

SD: Yeah

KP: How did you find Appalachian?

SD: I'm the youngest of 8 kids, my dad had died when I was a boy when I was 10 and so it was just me and my mom and this big old farmhouse in upstate New York in the back of beyond, the middle of nowhere. And we were poor and cranky and ready for a change and we decided, my mom wanted to sell the house and move somewhere a little bit warmer, and she had some friends who moved to Asheville. So we came down to Asheville to visit and we both really liked it. For reason that now puzzle me, I decided that it would be neat thing for me to go to college near my mom. I mean that sounds like a strange decision in retrospect. But, you know, we were very close and I think we wanted to help take care of each other and so we visited some schools down here and then I accelerated my senior high school, I finished two years of high school in one to hurry up to get down here. And then, like I said, we visited some schools here and Appalachian was plainly the one that spoke to me. As it turns out, my mom couldn't sell the house. That was when home mortgage interest rates were about 18% because of a financial situation. She never ended up moving to North Carolina, but I did. And so it was just a great place for me to land. It was a strange set of circumstances that led me here. There weren't many other New Yorkers here, but I did meet some New York transplants who had ended up in Greensboro and they remain among the closest friends today, some of the folks who will be back for this event tonight.

KP: You mentioned the band; my notes had said it was The Right Profile was the name of the band.

SD: That's right. That's the name of the band.

KP: So when you came, were you considering a career in music?

SD: So I think the short answer to that would be no. It's hard to think back at 16. What the heck do you think? I think it was day to day just trying to grow up and adapt to a new place and fit in and all those things. But I'd always played music. I'd played in bands all during high school, kind of regular band, you know, orchestra and stuff, and started rock bands. But I was very shy, I mean I'm still shy, I've learned how to sound like a blabbermouth, but I'm most happy in a room alone doing my writing or with my family or whatnot. I would never go out and try to find guys to start a band at a place like Appalachian where there's all these people. But another guy who became my very close friend and band mate, he had that wherewithal and he put up these signs on campus, and I think it said "Drummer and guitarist wanted for band. We want to write and play our own music, but here's some of the people we like: The Clash and Bruce Springsteen and Buddy Holly." And I read that sign and was like "Oh my God that's the music I like, you know, kind of old style music but punk and blah blah blah." Too bad I don't play guitar or drums, I play rock and roll piano, it's what I grew up playing. As it happened, I met this guy a couple days later through mutual friends, found out he was the guy that put up the sign. And I said "Oh, you know, I wish you were looking for a piano player because I would love to be in a band like that. I've been in bands but I play kind of rock and roll piano." He said "Oh, a piano player is what we really do want. Bruce Springsteen's band and Roy Bittan plays that great piano that really changes the shape of the rock and roll music sound. But, he said, we didn't want to advertise for a piano player because most people who come forward as piano players are the kind that kinda learn to play in their parlor and very sedate music and we wanted rock and roll. We didn't think we could get it. So I was like "Well if you want a rock and roll piano player, and I am one, we should do it." And again it was all because of the circumstance of being here together that made it happen.

KP: Well for a young person who wanted sort of a quiet life and not be in the spotlight...

SD: I failed.

KP: You did. But you were really there until, for me, "Freakonomics" hit the newsstand and the word began to spread. But before that you wrote a book that was called "Turbulent Souls" and you renamed it "Choosing My Religion." Talk a little about that. That has a personal side I understand.

SD: So "Turbulent Souls" was my first book, it was a memoir, which, you know, I've always, as a writer, been under the opinion that no one should write a memoir until they are at least 60 and here I was. I wrote two memoirs before I was probably 35 or so. I didn't set out to write about myself or my own life but I had begun a novel, I went to graduate school in New York at Columbia for fiction writing. I got an M.F.A in fiction writing. I was working on a novel that was based on my own family like many novels are, especially first novels. And my parents were this pair of Brooklyn-born Jews, who before they met each other, both converted to Catholicism in New York. It was very unusual. I grew up as the eight and last child of a Catholic family in upstate New York knowing a little bit about my parents having been Jewish and converted. They weren't at all anti-sematic. They didn't hide the fact that they had been Jewish. But they had been such devout Catholics that they considered their Judaism sort of ancient history. And so by the time I was born, they had been Catholic for a quarter of a century. By the time I was an adult, it was ancient, ancient history. But I began to get curious about my parents. I mentioned my dad had died when I was a kid, you know, a writer, you're always thinking about who you are, where you come from, and so on. So I began to write that book as a novel. And then I realized I didn't have enough information. And I'd been a journalist. I had grown up as a journalist. So I though well I will pursue the nonfiction part and I began to interview my mother, but my father was this big, black box, this mystery. So I had to go track down my father's family. These people who were my blood relatives who I had never met. I didn't even know about them. And it became this long, long, long search for family and ultimately religion. I had returned to Judaism in the long run. And so that was the first book. It was a book I'm still really proud of. I think it's a pretty good book. It does seem like a lifetime away because "Freakonomics" then came a couple books later and kinda swamped everything. And, I'll be honest with you, as much as I loved writing the smaller, personal memoir stuff, writing "Freakonomics" and this kind of stuff, nonfiction that's informed by creative thinking, is the way I think of it. That's what I love. I love journalism, but I also love creative, nonfiction writing. I love coming up with ideas and then illustrating them. Not just chasing the police car or whatnot. And, to me, that's what I was born to do. I love to observe the way things work. I love to ask questions. You know, my job is phenomenally fun. I get to find, track down, and ask questions of the most brilliant, interesting people in the world. And I write down what they say and then people read it and they know a little bit more about the way the world works. That's awesome.

KP: Did you, as a visionary, which you are, you certainly make everyone think when they read your writings, but as a visionary did you ever see this amount of success coming from your writings?

SD: No no no. Writer's, we have a phrase, whenever you've written something and it's about to be published, we call it the "lull between the lull." There's a lot of quiet and then something gets published and there's still a lot of quiet. There's so much writing published in so many formats, most of it doesn't get read very widely. So unless you're a delusionist or a narcissist, the smart money is on thinking that you're lucky if you get read a little bit. So "Freakonomics" was an accident, a big accident, which I'm very, very grateful for and happy about. The irony then becomes, well not quite the irony, the paradox becomes then that the accident that happens, it gives you an audience and it gives you a voice. Then it's real. So once you have your audience you really do have them. So it's nice that the success of that book was able to provide a continuing platform for us to do other books and a radio show and things like that.

KP: The radio show that you just referred to, are you going to be doing a show, I think, across the hall here on campus in just a few minutes. It's a call-in with questions?

SD: No it's what you call a produced show. So it's a lot like a book. You interview lots and lots and lots of people, you do lots and lots and lots of research and then you boil it all down into, the case of our radio show, you know, a 20 or 30 or 60 minute produced piece. For every hour or radio you hear there's probably been about 30, 40, 50 hours of work put into it because it's not meant to be just causal chat about a topic. It's meant to be kind of thoughtful, empirical-based. So what I'm doing today, we're doing an hour-long episode on college and the value of college which is a very big and important and controversial topic, Universities have gotten much more expensive in the past 20 years. Where does the money go? And is it worth it as in investment if you're a parent or a kid? The numbers that economists look at say that yes the investment is very much, there's probably never been a higher rate of return on education as there is today in our society because as society's gotten more technological, more complex the rewards are ever greater for those with more knowledge, more technology, more understanding of the way the world works. That said, part of the question we wanted to ask and answer in this episode is how does that value in a person, like me or you or any student, how is that value created? Is it just the numbers and facts and figures that you learn or is it intangibles? Is it learning how to think differently as you're a student? What we're doing today here at Appalachian at the radio station, where I used to work as a DJ a million years ago, is I'm interviewing three of my old, favorite professors. Each of whom taught me a lesson of some kind that changed the way that helped make the creative person that I am. They basically taught me kind of a life lesson within the context of the academic environment that I was able to, you know, assimilate and turn into the way I think about things. So it will hopefully be a good conversation with these three professors about these things that they taught me what they see as, what economists would call the transfer of knowledge, a very unromantic phrase for what happens to young people at universities.

KP: I believe I heard you correctly at the beginning when you said the value of higher education is greater now than it has ever been. That's something I love to hear.

SD: I bet you do.

KP: Sometimes we hear of the opposite that you're not doing what you used to do or, you know, the criticisms of what goes on in higher education. So we have lots of challenges. Do you see, from all of your research, challenges that we're facing in higher education?

SD: Oh absolutely. Without question. I mean, cost is a real issue. The inflation of college tuition has outpaced the inflation rate of just about anything that I could find except for gold in the last 30 years or so. And honestly gold had dipped historically. So really if you look at it over 100 years, college tuition may have inflated more than the rest. You have to ask two things, is it worth it and what are you getting for it? So when you start to look at the dollars and where the dollars go, you see a lot of really interesting things. First of all, if you're a state university, but even if you're not you'll see that funding...state and federal funding has really, really diminished. Those cost, you know, when you pass a state budget and you're going to give 100 million dollars less to your university system that money doesn't magically come from somewhere. Somebody. So that's one part of it. You could argue that, you know, it's good for students and their families to invest more themselves in paying for the professors and the physical parts, you know, of the campus. It changes the way you feel about it. The other thing I would say is there is a lot of confusion I think about the value of the education. So, you know, we're living at, hopefully, the end of a really bad recession. Really bad. That said, we didn't go into depression. That said, our society has continued to function pretty darn well. That said, a lot of things in society have continued to get better. Life expectancy, crime rate continues to lower. A lot of things are going incredibly well in our society right now. We tend to lose sight of that and focus on the problems. We focus on this horribly partisan, interlocked, gridlocked governmental system we've got in states and the federal government. We focus on things like college and you see a lot of young people get out of college now with debt and job prospects not as good as they would have been 5 years ago, which leads people to the very kind of fassle conclusion of "Oh, well college isn't worth it." Yeah, but then you look at the rate of employment and the salary and the lifetime salary of a college graduate today in a bad job climate versus a non-college graduate. You do not want to be the non-college graduate. So as much as the college graduate may have taken a hit relative to 5 years ago, the value of education has actually increased. The gap between the educated and the uneducated. I think what this argues for is making as much education, as many types of education I should say, from vocational to the purely intellectual. Making as much education and as many types of education as accessible to as many people in society as possible. Economists have a phrase. It's called "externalities." An externality is a cost or a benefit that you get for something that you don't do. So a negative externality would be like pollution. Let's say I have a big factory and I pollute the air and you live downstream from it. You can't do anything about it but you pay the price. That's a negative externality. It's easy to think of those examples, unfortunately. There are also, however, positive externalities. Education is maybe the strongest positive externality that's ever existed. The more people that get the more education, the more positive things that happen for all of society. So societies that have more education tend to be safer. They tend to have better environments. They tend to have better longevity and health, generally. So I think it's easy to lose sight of the big picture when you get upset about pieces of it. And the big picture is that education is a good. It's a service that provides an unbelievably good value for society. And while there are complications and conflicts and controversy and cost has gotten to be a significant barrier, you can't lose sight of that fact.

KP: Right, right. What do you see, you know you mentioned economics. What do you see as the problem with our economy today? One day I hear it's good and one day I hear it's not good, back and forth, and some of that might just be some politics, I don't know. But what do you see from where you are?

SD: It's hard to say. It's a hard question and people much, much, much smarter than I, trained economists, will give you, you know, you'll line up 10 economists and you'll get about 11 opinions. You'll get 11 answers to that very question. Which makes me want to ask a different kind of question. I realized this when I began to look at current, some of the best and brightest economists in the world today, including Ben Bernanke, are still arguing over whether FDR's monetary and fiscal interventions during the depression exacerbated the depression or helped end it. Literally. That's the debate that is still happening in academia today to some degree. If they can't figure out what happened 89 years ago, I tend to distrust a lot of the macro-economic explanations and projections and predictions about the future. You know, should we have tripled the stimulus? Would that have fixed everything? Some say yes and some say absolutely not it would give us a debt that we would never get out of. In terms of what our economy is today and what's wrong with it, I would say that it became overheated on a number of dimensions none of which are non-obvious. In other words, a lot of which, in retrospect, were really obvious. The housing bubble, and there were plenty of people who said this and saw it as it was happening, there were a lot of bad things happening at once there. There was a lot of inefficiency. There were a lot of people getting rewards without taking risks. There was inflation. It was a bubble. You know, a commodity typically doesn't triple in price in 5 years unless there's a very robust set of people wanting to buy that thing. And it's not like we were importing hundreds of millions of people to buy all these new homes. So, a lot of things have happened in that cycle that weren't good. We're adjusting to it. We're also adjusting to a world in which we're balancing, we're learning to live with the tradeoffs of technology. So technology produces unbelievable gains to society, generally. It also, however, tends to increase productivity a lot. And that means it changes your employment. So every time that I invent a thing that doers the work of one or two or three hundred people, that changes the employment picture. There's an economist called Joseph Schumpeter who had a phrase describing capitalism. He called it creative destruction. It's an anomaly. How can something destructive be creative? It's the old you have to break eggs to make an omelet. That's what the economy is. And there will always be, I hate to say it, winners and losers. If your economy is robust enough, however, the people who lose out on one dimension will have other opportunities. But again, education is often the key component to having those opportunities.

KP: In all of your writings, as you said "Freakonomics" really just, that elevated you and put your name up whether you wanted it up or not. It just made it happen. But then shortly after that comes "SuperFreakonomics." The first chapter in that book is just an intriguing chapter and an intriguing topic to me. And I just want to know how you come up with these topics to say this is something I want to research. It's "How is a street prostitute like a department store Santa?" Where does that come from?

SD: So the actual question is, believe it or not, that actual question is about the labor supply. In other words, you know, we write about a lot of topics that most people leave well enough alone because they look at a topic like drug sales and prostitution and think those are immorally opposed to those so, therefore I don't want to know anything about it. I don't have that attitude. I'm not an immoral person at all. I consider myself a deeply moral person as I assume everyone does, but I do think for the work that I do with my co-author Steve Levitt, it helps to be amoral, which means to turn off your moral view of the world because we all have a moral view. We all have a moral compass. But I think, personally, the best way to solve a problem is to put your moral compass in your pocket first. And use your rational, intellectual brain and try to figure out what's actually happening here. Instead of saying prostitution is a horrible thing and therefore I don't want to learn a thing about it, you could say look I may feel X or Y about prostitution. What I know is it exists. And because it exists it's a real thing in our society. There are women who go into it. There are men who pay for it. So how does that work? What's the economics of it? What kind of woman does it and why? Why is it so attractive? Why does it pay so much? Why does it pay enough so people will do it? A department store Santa, it turns out, they are a little bit like prostitutes in that they respond to short-term demand surges. You know, a department store Santa, you can only work a few weeks out of the year. Turns out there are markets where prostitution burgeons a few weeks a year. London right now is very concerned that the Olympics there will give rise to a big spike in prostitution. It's supply and demand. So, how we come up with this stuff is, my partner and I, were a little bit peas in a pod. He's much smarter than I am and he's an economist who works with very complicated, elegant math. My math is maybe slightly above average. But we both love to look around the world and find the things that truly interest us and then peruse them as deeply as we can and then write about them. I think if I had any advice for students generally, is really, I know it's a cliché, but you really have to try to find something that you love to do because it's hard to get really good at something if you don't love it. The way you get good at something is by doing, doing, doing , doing, doing. Whether, you know, if it's writing or playing music or playing golf or whatever. If you don't love it, you're not going to want to do it as much. Then you're not going to get as good as you want to get. So I think that the value of finding something that truly turns you on. That's another good thing about college. It's a place to try anything and everything. Try to learn whatever you want to learn to see what really works for you.

KP: How would you deal with the situations that I think all of us face on university campuses now that you say, you may not like it and you'll say it's wrong, I don't support this at all. But if you really face the brutal facts, you have to realize that there is abuse of alcohol, and there's the use of drugs illegally on campuses. It's there. How do we stop that?

SD: Well if that were an easy question. You know, it's funny my first rule of problem solving is to kind of figure out what the problem you're actually trying to solve is. Often you come up with the fact that you're addressing a symptom and not a root cause. So you need to change your attention to the root cause. The other thing is, if problems were easy to solve, they wouldn't still be around. If I could tell you how to solve this problem, we wouldn't be having the conversation. I think drugs and alcohol, to me, and this is something that we have been thinking about, just starting to do some research on, you do want to look at the root cause. Why do people do that? Everybody uses drugs to some degree. I'm drinking some coffee right here. That's a drug. Right? There's many different kind of drugs it's a huge spectrum. What are people trying to accomplish when they do it? Are they trying to make themselves feel better about themselves? Are they trying to fit in better with other people? Are they trying to become someone that they're not? Are they unhappy with themselves? I think the single best starting point is to look at data.

KP: Thank you very much for being a guest on Appalachian Perspective. It's great to have you back on campus. We're all very proud of you and want you to keep coming back and we'll keep visiting you in New York. But thank you for being a guest on Appalachian Perspective.

SD: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

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