In this episode we ask a simple, heretical question: How much does the President of the United States really matter? Stephen Dubner talks to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, economists Austan Goolsbee and Justin Wolfers, and constitutional scholar Bernadette Meyler about how the President’s actual influence can be measured. And Steve Levitt weighs in on how the President shapes the nation.
Also in this episode, we look at another supposed truism: hitchhiking is terribly dangerous. But is that really true? Hitchhiking has practically disappeared in America, but why? Was it really as dangerous as we believed? Even if so, what other factors were at play?
We talk to data wizard Bill James, who says our risk aversion to hitchhiking makes it more dangerous, and transportation scholar Alan Pisarski, who looks at how hitchhiking can inform future transportation policy. Would society be better off with more hitchhiking?
Donald RUMSFELD: Oh, the President matters a great deal.
Stephen DUBNER: You may recognize that voice.
RUMSFELD: I’m Don Rumsfeld. And I’ve just written a book, Known and Unknown, a memoir.
DUBNER: He’ s also a former Navy pilot, congressman, U.S. Ambassador to NATO, White House Chief of Staff, and two-time Secretary of Defense.
RUMSFELD: Needless to say, our Constitution divides the powers, between the legislative and the judicial and the executive branches, so no President of the United States has the overwhelming power that dictators do, for example. However, a President of the United States has the bully pulpit. He can talk and be heard, and people listen. And of course in our society, with a free political system, you lead not by command but by persuasion. And persuasion, my uncle used to tell me, is a two-edged sword – reason and emotion. Plunge it deep.
DUBNER: Today, we’re going to plunge deep into a couple of questions. The first one, the one I asked Rumsfeld … well, I have a feeling you’re not going to like it. Most people, if you ask them this question, their heads explode. They sputter, they swear, they tell you you’re a moron for eventhinking this question. But let’s ask it anyway. How much does the President of the United States really matter? I mean, we know the rhetoric -- the President is the “Leader of the Free World,” the “Most Powerful Human Being on the Face of the Earth.” But how true is that? How much does the president really matter?
[Franklin D. ROOSEVELT: I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt]
[Dwight EISENHOWER: Dwight D. Eisenhower]
[Richard NIXON: Richard Milhous Nixon]
[Barack OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear]
[Bill CLINTON: that I will faithfully execute the office]
[Jimmy CARTER: of president of the United States]
[George H. W. BUSH: and will to the best of my ability]
[George W. BUSH: the best of my ability]
[Richard NIXON: preserve, protect and defend]
[Ronald REAGAN:... the Constitution]
[Dwight EISENHOWER: ...of the United States]
[ALL: So help me God.]
ANNOUNCER: From American Public Media and WNYC: This is Freakonomics Radio. Today, how much power does the president really have? And later, we hit the road to see if hitchhiking is as dangerous as it seems. Did we ditch a good thing? Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: Donald Rumsfeld is 79 years old. During his nearly 50 years in and out of Washington, he got a good look at the powers of the President via seven different men, from Eisenhower to George W. Bush. In between, he spent a lot of time in the private sector.
DUBNER: You’ve been a CEO a couple of times, you’ve worked in the White House. Now, there’s been academic research looking at the actual impact of a CEO on a firm, and perhaps not surprisingly to you, economists have found that CEOs are far less influential than, let’s say their pay packages might connote. But there’s this kind of leadership perception, much as there is with the Presidency. So talk to me for a moment about the parallel between the CEO and the President.
RUMSFELD: Well, they’re really very, very different, and being good at one doesn’t suggest that one would necessarily be good at the other. The political world is a thing of a different order. Because the powers are divided, a President has to spend a great deal of time dealing with the Congress and dealing with the media, because you communicate to the Congress and the public through the media. And almost anything that’s proposed is going to be debated and discussed openly, immediately. In business, conversely, I mean I could go into a corporation and decide that I want to freeze the dividend, and I could do it as CEO. I could decide I’m going to open a research facility in country X instead of Country Y. I could decide I’m going to downsize or sell off a division, and I did it. And you can be wrong, as well as right, to be sure. But at least you are able to do it. You know, in government, if we put something in place, in one of the departments or agencies, the Congress wants to have hearings on it, they want to pull the plant up by the roots every five minutes to see if it’s still growing and traumatize it, and the press wants to critique it before it’s even fifteen minutes old. It’s enormously different.
DUBNER: Now that’s a very very compelling argument, but I have to say, it sounds a little bit at odds with how we began this conversation. When I asked you kind of the baseline question – “How much does the president matter” -- you answered that of course it matters a great, great, great deal. But you’re telling me now that in terms of influence, in terms of ability to get things done, to move things from step one to step ten, the President, man, he’s just got a whole heap of trouble he’s just got to keep plowing through. Is that right?
RUMSFELD: Well, I mean, think of what Presidents have accomplished in my adult lifetime. I mean Franklin Roosevelt got things through the Congress and changed the way America functioned during the Great Depression. He carefully moved the country towards WWII, and began assisting with Lend-Lease, the British, and recognizing the threat that Adolf Hitler posed. He did some bad things, like impounding all the Japanese-Americans in the Pacific Coast and putting them in detention centers. But he could do those things.
[ROOSEVELT: Throughout the Depression, you have been patient. You have granted us wide powers, you have encouraged us with widespread approval of our purposes.]
RUMSFELD: And look at what George W. Bush did. 9/11. There was no road map or guidebook for him, what he should do. And yet he did. And he got a lot done, and this country has been protected for a decade.
DUBNER: So you’re implying that the circumstance of the presidency is what confers the shape of the power, I guess. You mention FDR and President Bush, and in each case, we’re talking about dramatic circumstances. Depression and war on the one hand, and a massive terrorist attack on the other.
RUMSFELD: No, it’s both. It’s both the circumstance and the personality, the individual.
[BUSH: We’re a nation at war. And America and her allies are fighting this war with relentless determination across the world.]
DUBNER: Give me an example if you could of where you were surprised by a given President’s inability to get something done. It might have been a legislative something, it might have been a leadership something, it might have been a foreign policy something.
RUMSFELD: Well, Gerald Ford of course was a man of the House of Representatives. He’d served there for a long time and was highly respected. In fact, his hope in life had been to someday maybe be Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. He got in the Presidency and the war in Vietnam was coming to the end. And he decided that if they could get the Congress to provide some additional funds, they could very likely affect how the outcome ended. That is to say, conceivably save lives – there were hundreds of thousands of people killed after the end of the Vietnam war in Indochina – and conceivably strengthen the South Vietnamese government sufficiently that they could survive and not be totally overrun by the north. He worked with the Congress, and tried to get the funds from the Congress, and couldn’t. And if there’s anybody, now admittedly, he didn’t have control of either house, they were in the hands of the Democrats. But as a President, he was loved up on Capitol Hill, he was respected. In my view, he had the benefit of being on the right side of the issue, trying to do the right thing, and he was not successful.
DUBNER: Were you at the time, surprised? Frustrated, chagrined?
RUMSFELD: Oh, I don’t know. I suppose I was surprised. I don’t get frustrated or chagrined.
DUBNER: How do you do that?
RUMSFELD: I don’t know, you just get up every morning and look ahead.
[FORD: Unless every able American pitches in, Congress and I cannot do the job.]
DUBNER: Give me an example, if you would, of where a President took the blame for something that was really entirely out of his control.
RUMSFELD: Well, I think one would have to say, not entirely out of his control, but certainly Lyndon Johnson on the Vietnam War. It was you know started in the Kennedy Administration, he inherited it after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of 1963. And he ended up having to announce that he wouldn’t run for re-election
[JOHNSON: I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.]
DUBNER: Did you ever, did you come down more on the right side of President Johnson or on the wrong side in your encounters with him?
RUMSFELD: I was a big supporter of civil rights, so I mean that was no problem. I had trouble with some of his approaches on Vietnam. But we would not have had a civil rights legislation in the 1960s had Lyndon Johnson not resolved to have it. And it was that masterful combination of the cooperation between the Republicans and Lyndon Johnson and his determination. Now there’s an example of a President using the powers of the Presidency brilliantly for the good of the country.
[JOHNSON: But really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice and we shall overcome.]
DUBNER: What makes a leader powerful? If it’s all about persuasion, like Rumsfeld says, Lyndon Johnson was one of the best, a master of the trade. This was a man who could get his dog to sing.
[JOHNSON: Come on, sing for me.
Lady Bird JOHNSON: Oh, you silly dog.]
DUBNER: But let’s get back to the present for now.
[OBAMA: Out of many, we are one. That while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people. Yes we can.]
Steve LEVITT: I’ve probably never been more wrong about anything than I was about my projections for what the Obama administration would look like.
DUBNER: That’s Steve Levitt. He’s my Freakonomics friend and co-author; he’s an economist at the University of Chicago. He admits he usually doesn’t pay much attention to politics, but in the last election, he did.
LEVITT: I think the problem for Obama is that he’s the greatest speaker who ever lived. And I’ve said this from long before he became President, the very first time I heard Obama speak I thought he was like the Pied Piper, because even though I disagreed with most of what he said, I immediately wanted to do them. I would have done whatever he would have told me to do. And in fact that’s why I voted for Obama. I never vote, but I voted for Obama because I thought there was a good chance that Obama will be the greatest President in the history of mankind. And I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that I voted for Barack Obama.
DUBNER: Levitt doesn’t usually vote for two reasons. One is that, like a lot of economists, he thinks that casting one vote in a sea of millions is basically just a waste of time. Now, it should be said that most people don’t think about voting like economists do. But the other reason he doesn’t vote is that he doesn’t think the President matters all that much.
[OBAMA: It was a creed written into the founding documents, that declared the destiny of a nation: yes we can.]
LEVITT: What I think a president can do, is I think a president can set a tone for a nation. So whether it was someone like a Ronald Reagan...
[REAGAN: Tear down this wall.]
LEVITT: or Franklin Roosevelt...
[ROOSEVELT: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.]
LEVITT: that that’s really what great leaders do is they set a tone. And I really thought that Obama would be able, through his unbelievable intellect and eloquence, be able to set an incredible tone for our country. And what’s strange and surprising to me is that exactly the opposite happened. As soon as he got into office, the tone of the debate was just rancorous, and off-tune, off-pitch.
DUBNER: Levitt imagined Obama strolling into the White House and blasting away all the negativity, blazing a path toward a shining future. Obama and his staff probably had the same idea. Here’s one of them, who happens to be a colleague of Levitt’s.
Austan GOOLSBEE: Hi, I’m Austan Goolsbee. I’m a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. And I’m the former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors.
DUBNER: Which means that you worked as an economist in the White House bending the president’s ear.
GOOLSBEE: Something like that.
DUBNER: Something like that. So you might think from the way everybody talks during an election, including the candidates, that there’s some kind of magic button in the Oval Office that the president can just kind of press whenever he needs to jack up the economy to create more jobs or whatnot. But you guys, you got in there, you found there are no such buttons at all, are there?
GOOLSBEE: You know, I spent a lot of the first month there wandering all around in the basement trying to figure out the tunnels, whether I could find if there was a bunker under there or whatever it was. I never found that button. I never found the bunker or the tunnels either. But I think the bigger mistake that people make is assuming that they can go turn the crank in the White House, or in Congress, or somewhere in Washington and just get the economy going, because such a big share of the economy has nothing to do with Washington that it doesn’t quite work like that.
DUBNER: Well before Obama was President, Goolsbee was one of his economics go-to guys, an adviser on both his presidential and 2004 Senate campaigns.
DUBNER: So you, personally, Austan, have been with President Obama for a long time, longer than any political ally that I know of at least. So tell me, here’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask you, when it comes to actually having the power and the influence to get things done, how much does the President of the United States actually matter?
GOOLSBEE: For the macroeconomy not a ton. I mean, I say about ninety-eight percent of the economy has nothing to do with Washington at all, much less the president at a normal time. I certainly think he can set the tone and then there are a bunch of particulars where I don’t know if it’s like flying an airplane or something where they say it’s ninety-eight percent boredom and two percent terror or something. You know, in the White House it’s got an element like that. Look, the economy’s doing what it’s doing, but then every once and a while there are these catastrophic events and the world is about to blow up. And then the President of the United States makes a really big difference as does the head of the Fed, because, you know, the decisions that they make in a crisis can either make things worse and worse and start to spiral the wrong way. Or they can, you know, get some wind back under the sails and start to fix it. I’d say, if I had to summarize, I think the world vests too much power, certainly in the president, probably in Washington in general for its influence on the economy, because most all of the economy has nothing to do with the government.
DUBNER: So that’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? Here’s President Obama’s former top economist saying that the whole idea of the President affecting the economy is bit of a charade. Can that possibly be true? And how do you even try to answer that question empirically – how do you isolate the president from all the other forces at work on the economy? Justin Wolfers is an economist who’s taught at Penn and Princeton. He tried to answer that question in a study of the 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential election.
Justin WOLFERS: 2004 was a social scientist’s dream. So, the thing is, if you want to try and study the effects of the presidency on anything, in my case on the economy, then if you’re a doctor what you’d do is run a big randomized trial. Half the time you’d randomly make it a Republican president, half the time you’d randomly make it a Democratic president, and you’d see how those two treatments did in terms of their effect on the economy. The problem is, we’re not allowed to do that in the social sciences. I can’t randomly make someone president.
DUBNER: Yet, yet you’re not allowed.
WOLFERS: Yet. But if you remember the 2004 race – ‘round about three o’clock on election day the exit polls got leaked. And the exit polls said that John Kerry had won in a landslide. Now round about seven o’clock at night they’d counted enough votes that it had become quite clear that in fact Bush was going to win. What you have is four hours -- Now, I’m a Democrat, so I’ll say four beautiful hours -- in which we basically had a Kerry presidency and it was random. Because the only reason people thought John Kerry was president was because of a misinterpretation of the early exit polls. And so what we can do is we can look at how the financial markets perform during those four hours of the Kerry presidency and compare that to, either the four hours prior when it was clearly a Bush presidency, or the four hours after when we learned it was actually going to be the second George W. Bush presidency. So, when we do that you see in fact that stocks fell a little bit during the four hours of the Kerry presidency and that they rose a little bit when it became the Bush presidency. So that tells us that the stock market preferred George Bush over John Kerry, sounds like good news for Republicans. Now let me give the Democrats response, which is in fact it didn’t move very much. It looks like the difference between having a Bush presidency and a Kerry presidency for the value of U.S. stocks was maybe one and a half or two percent, which is really a pretty small effect.
DUBNER: You might think the stock-market effect that Wolfers measured isn’t very meaningful in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, it does seem to show that the people who pay the most attention to the economy -- and who stand most to profit or lose money -- agree that the President isn’t such a big kahuna.
[TRUMAN PIANO MUSIC]
DUBNER: I’ll bet you $100 you can’t name this piano player. He was from the state of Missouri, town of Independence. He loved the piano, sometimes thought about a career in music. Instead, he opened a haberdashery. And later, he became President of the United States. That’s right, Harry S Truman.
DUBNER: Truman had an eventful presidency -- deciding to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a tough post-war economy at home; the founding of the United Nations. He didn’t always get his way. The Taft-Hartley labor law was passed despite the most powerful objection a President possesses: the veto.
Coming up on Freakonomics Radio, what if we just woke up tomorrow and there wasn’t a president?
Bernadette MEYLER: I think we would continue functioning in almost the same way.
[Bill CLINTON: My fellow citizens]
[Dwight EISENHOWER: My countrymen.]
[Gerald FORD: My fellow Americans]
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM: American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: Bernadette Meyler is a Cornell Law professor who specializes in the Constitution and executive power. I asked her what would happen if, whether by miracle or tragedy, depending on your point of view, we woke up tomorrow with no president?
MEYLER: I don’t think that actually the day to day experience would change that much. How we wound up without a president would probably dictate certain kinds of responses, or change public opinion, or change the ways in which people were responding. But I think that just not having a president I’m not sure would really change the way things happen everyday all that much.
DUBNER: So … what can the president do? Meyler thinks the president has real power in only five areas.
MEYLER: One is as commander-in-chief of the army and navy. A second area is not of unilateral power but is of very significant power, and that’s the power to decide whom to appoint especially with judicial nominations. Then a third power that I think is often under-reflected-upon is the power not to enforce laws. So the president has the executive power, which means he can execute the laws. But it also means he can decide not to execute the laws. And a fourth power I think is the power to persuade Congress to take certain kinds of action. And then a final area is really a power in relation to negotiating with foreign countries, a power over foreign affairs.
DUBNER: All right, all right, let’s not kid ourselves – those are real powers, powerful powers. But it’s hardly the unilateral authority that goes with all that “Leader of the Free World” rhetoric. But: that’s how we wanted it! Remember, this is a country that got rid of a king in favor of a democratic republic. Are some people in that republic much, much more powerful than others? Of course they are. And the President is a very powerful individual. But ... he’s an individual. It’s easy to overestimate his influence.
DUBNER: So when you think of the role of the president in relation to Congress, in relation to the states, in relation to the public and so on, what’s the best metaphor for the president? Is he or she a puppet master pulling every string? Or is he or she more like the Wizard of Oz, this very mortal man behind the curtain? How do you see it?
MEYLER: I would say actually the Wizard of Oz is better analogy. Partly because I think so much of what is important about the president is an image.
DUBNER: So if the president is, for the most part, just another guy with a really big microphone, why even have a president?
J. C. BRADBURY: I think people think the president is almost like a benevolent despot, determining our fortunes. When in reality, I think the president is really just someone who is sitting in the co-pilot seat in a plane that’s already on auto-pilot. And certainly there are some things he can do and we always have pilots in planes, just like we need a president.
DUBNER: That’s J. C. Bradbury. He’s a professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. He’s known as “the baseball economist” – he’s studied things like how much the manager of a baseball team really matters.
BRADBURY: What we found when we look at managers is that while some might be slightly better than the others, it’s not a big difference between one manager and the next in terms of decisions that they make. What I’ve tried to do is look at players who have played for many different managers and coaches and see how they perform differently under different managers. I have not found much differentiation at all between how well players perform with different managers. That is, as they move from team to team, they tend to perform about as well as they always have.
DUBNER: Now, leading a baseball team is of course nothing like leading an entire country. So it’d be ludicrous to compare the two jobs. But … let’s do it anyway.
BRADBURY: Well, I think the reason you finally have to have a guy in the dugout is because, if you’ve ever played intramural sports in college, you know that when there’s no coach, people aren’t on the same page, people disagree. So it’s just nice to have one person to say, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do. This is the plan to move forward.” And so the manager has to be there even though he may not be doing anything that’s much different than what any other manager might do.
DUBNER: So it’s like, you kind of need Dad in the house.
BRADBURY: Exactly. You need that final arbiter to say, “OK, this is the decision we’ve made and we’re going with it.”
DUBNER: Sounds a little bit like what the President of the United States does.
BRADBURY: Absolutely, and the president, if you think about the control that the president might have over the economy, for instance just one area, the president is just a third of our government and we have the legislative and executive branches and if the two houses of Congress agree and the president agree, we can get policy. But it’s very complicated for them all to agree and so it’s very hard for the president to even have an impact on the economy directly. And especially when much of what goes on in the economy is determined outside by market forces. So the president sort of serves as a focal point to say, “How are we doing: are we doing good or are we doing bad?” And voters sometimes look to blame the president when things aren’t going well, even though there’s not much he or she could have done about it. Or they may try to reward him when things are going well, just happened to be riding good times.
[REAGAN: My friends, we did it. We weren’t just marking time. We made a difference. All in all, not bad.]
Bill JAMES: It’s an attribution problem.
DUBNER: That’s Bill James, another baseball scholar. He helped revolutionize the field of baseball statistics. James says the attribution problem is a common one -- like with pitchers.
JAMES: In baseball for many years people believed that baseball was seventy-five percent pitching. And the essential reason that they believe this is that they credit the pitcher with wins and losses. And if you credit the pitcher with winning and losing the game, it becomes a tautology that the pitcher is always responsible for winning or losing the game. And it creates the illusion that the pitcher is responsible for much more than he actually is.
DUBNER: Hmm. Interesting, no? Let’s listen back to what James just said, but swap out the word “pitcher”:
JAMES: And if you credit the [PRESIDENT] with winning and losing the game, it becomes a tautology that the [PRESIDENT] is always responsible for winning or losing the game. And it creates the illusion that the [PRESIDENT] is responsible for much more than he actually is.
DUBNER: No matter how illusory his powers may be, the President plainly matters. Just not in the black-and-white, binary way most people think.
RUMSFELD: And that’s the genius of our system, was this divided power.
DUBNER: That’s Don Rumsfeld again.
RUMSFELD: And it has worked amazingly well. I mean, the American political experiment is probably the most amazing and probably the most brilliant creation that mankind has fashioned. And it’s been an example for countries all across the globe.
DUBNER: So let’s leave the question of Presidential power behind -- but linger for oen more minute on what Bill James was saying about attribution errors. As he sees it, such errors are hardly confined to politics and baseball.
JAMES: The same syndrome works in almost every area of life. This also includes, for example, safety from violent crime. In the 1950s, the 1960s, people routinely hitchhiked, routinely picked up hitchhikers. We stopped doing that because of stories that hitchhikers were violent criminals. Well, hitchhikers had no more tendency to be violent criminals than anyone else. There was always the chance that they were, but stopping the practice of hitchhiking really did nothing whatsoever to reduce the incidence of violent crime, and had no social value whatsoever. We had attributed to hitchhiking the violence of a few hitchhikers and had closed down the wrong thing.
DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio, we ask our second question:
LEVITT: When’s the last time anyone saw a hitchhiker on the road? I haven’t seen a hitchhiker on the road in 20 years. But it makes you wonder. Why did hitchhiking disappear?
[ONE MINUTE BREAK]
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM: American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: Jason, what are we watching here?
Jason ZINOMAN: This is the beginning of Texas Chainsaw Massacre with these kids are going to visit a graveyard and they pick up a pretty scraggily looking hitchhiker.
DUBNER: Jason Zinoman is a theater critic for The New York Times, and he’s the author of a book called Shock Value, which is about horror films of the 1970’s. So in this movie, a van full of teenagers decide, after some debate, to pick up a hitchhiker. He just got off his shift at the slaughterhouse, so his face is streaked with blood, and he’s talking about bludgeoning cows to death.
DUBNER: It’s pretty clear by now that we’re wishing that he hadn’t been picked up.
ZINOMAN: Pretty much, yes.
DUBNER: There’s not really any good scenario we can imagine coming out of this.
ZINOMAN: No, no, it’s true. It only gets worse, it only gets worse.
DUBNER: Uh oh.
ZINOMAN: Now here’s where he crossed the line. He cuts them…
DUBNER: Oh! Mama! This is why – OK, I’m going to…
ZINOMAN: That’s enough, that’s the final straw. You can…you cut the guy and he gets kicked out.
DUBNER: And Franklin’s arm is just bleeding like a…
ZINOMAN: Oh, Franklin, it’s just a little cut. You know, it’s…
DUBNER: So if you’re asking the question, Why did hitchhiking pretty much disappear, movies like this one give a compelling answer – because it’s so dangerous! If. You. Hitchhike. You. Will. Die. That’s the lesson we’ve learned, at least. Here’s Steve Levitt again:
LEVITT: If even anybody even thought there were homicidal maniacs who were killing hitchhikers or hitchhikers killing people who picked them up, then certainly that would have the kind of chilling effect on a market that very few things could have.
DUBNER: That’s right, Levitt the economist thinks of hitchhiking as a market, much like any other:
LEVITT: Hitchhiking is a classic example of what an economist would call a matching market where there’s a person who wants a ride, and there’s a person who’s willing to give a ride, and there’s actually usually typically no money changes hands, so somehow there are people getting benefit on both sides of the transaction. The fifties, the sixties, maybe even the seventies, there was some sort of equilibrium in which there was a set of people who wanted to hitchhike, and there was a set of people who were willing to pick them up. And somehow that equilibrium got destroyed. So the question is what happened to the equilibrium?
DUBNER: The assumption is that hitchhiking was so dangerous that people just wised up and stopped doing it. But how dangerous was it? We went looking for data – on hitchhiking itself and on the violence associated with it. And we found pretty much … nothing, at least no worthwhile data. So how common was hitchhiking violence? Did we maybe overreact? Do you remember a few years back, when the media talked about the “Summer of the Shark”? All those scary stories about horrible, disfiguring shark attacks. Now, guess how many fatal shark attacks there were that year – the whole year, around the world. Go ahead, guess. Alright, the actual number was four. There were probably more people killed by TV news vans going to cover all the shark attacks, right? But when something is really frightening, we get a little bit number-blind. With something like hitchhiking, it might take just one story.
Colleen STAN: I woke up in the morning. It was a gorgeous day. The wildflowers were out, the trees, you know, sprouted all their leaves. The grass is green, because it’s spring. It hasn’t dried up or anything yet. It was gorgeous.
DUBNER: That’s Colleen Stan. It was May 19, 1977.
STAN: I had just turned twenty in December. And I was very young and had a very carefree spirit about me. And I was quite impulsive.
DUBNER: Stan was living in Eugene, Oregon, and she was planning to visit a friend in Westwood, California, about 360 miles to the south. But her car wouldn’t start. So she decided to hitchhike. She got a ride with some truckers who were hauling grape juice. They let her off in Red Bluff, California, about an hour and a half from her friend’s house. The truckers even gave her a gallon of juice when they dropped her off. She put out her thumb again.
STAN: A car stops, and there were five guys in it. And I said thanks, but no thanks. And so they went on their way.
DUBNER: Her next ride was a blue Dodge Colt. There was a young couple inside, with a baby. Looked safe enough. So Stan got in the car.
STAN: It was a very warm day because it was May. And Red Bluff is in the valley and it’s very warm there. It can get, in the summer time, it can get like 115 there, so it’s a very warm place. It was a warm day and I was thirsty from traveling and I had taken the juice and I tipped it up to take a drink. And about the same time I tipped it up, the driver presses on the accelerator and jets out back onto the highway to take off. Well, this causes the juice to pour all down me. So I was a little irritated with him at this point. And I remember I looked up to the front to the review mirror. And he was looking in the review mirror and it gave me a chill down my spine.
DUBNER: The man, whose name was Cameron Hooker, and his wife, Janice, wound up kidnapping Colleen Stan. They held her captive for more than seven years and they did a variety of horrible things to her. Finally, in 1984, she escaped. Hooker was sentenced to 104 years in prison; his wife got immunity for testifying against him. It became a big media story. The message was clear.
STAN: This is why people shouldn’t hitchhike. Because when you get into a car with someone, you are literally handing your life over to them. It’s just not worth it; it’s too dangerous. Because you can look at someone, you can look the situation and evaluate it, just like I did, and say, this looks like a safe ride. But you don’t know what the intent is in someone’s heart, because they don’t show that on the outside. And you don’t know. And it’s just not worth it, cause life is too valuable to just give it away like that.
DUBNER: You can hardly blame Colleen Stan for feeling this way. But how common are these really bad hitchhiking outcomes? Again, we really don’t know. But life is all about tradeoffs. Every time you do anything, you consider the tradeoff. Should four fatal shark attacks each year keep everyone out of the ocean? Apparently not. But what number would – 40? 400? 4,000? What happens when you start letting relatively small numbers balloon into such a large fear?
JAMES: My father was the kind of person who would stop and help anybody.
DUBNER: That’s Bill James again, the baseball statistician. He was born in 1949, in Kansas.
JAMES: One time, with two small kids in the car, late at night, coming back from a movie, we saw two black guys, two black adult males standing beside the road. Now, my father was not Spencer Tracy. He was not a violent racist, but he was a man of his generation, and he had the racist attitudes that were common in his generation. Nonetheless, we stopped, we asked them if they needed a ride, and we took them where the needed to go. And the reason why was you just did. It was in the time in place where I grew up, if you saw somebody in need of a ride you gave them a ride.
DUBNER: As James got older, that changed. He remembers hearing PSA’s on the radio, warning drivers not to pick up hitchhikers.
[PSA: Good advice for the cross-country motorist. Although it may seem like a kind act, it is not a wise act to pick up hitchhikers indiscriminately.]
DUBNER: In retrospect, he says, hitchhiking took the blame for crime in general. That’s another topic he likes writing about; his latest book is called Popular Crime.
JAMES: If you have a certain number of violent people running around hitchhiking, the few other people you have running around hitchhiking, the more dangerous it becomes to pick up a hitchhiker. It drove itself out of existence. Basically nobody hitchhikes anymore. And the practice has all but disappeared. My point about it was what’s really the social value in this? Hitchhiking is economically efficient because it puts more people in the car. The real danger was not hitchhiking it was the fact that you had a certain number of random crazy people who will hurt you. As long as you have the same number of random crazy people, you have the same number of violent crimes, and eliminating hitchhiking doesn’t, in my opinion, do anything to change that. So, it was a social change that protects the individual. I mean, I don’t pick up, I wouldn’t pick up hitchhikers either. I’m not nuts. I do that to protect myself. But protecting myself has no value to society.
DUBNER: So the demand for hitchhiking fell because of fear, a breakdown in trust, a selfishness, whatever. But maybe those aren’t the only reasons demand fell.
DUBNER: Did you ever hitchhike, Levitt?
LEVITT: I did not hitchhike. I was just a little bit too young. By the time I was fifteen, I think hitchhikers had pretty much disappeared.
DUBNER: Well, not quite. I was hitchhiking then. When I was about 14 or 15, I started thumbing a ride most mornings before school, in the dark, to get to my job in town, stocking shelves. I hitched all during college, all over the south, and a couple times from North Carolina to upstate New York and back. It was a pretty simple calculation: I wanted to get somewhere, and I couldn’t afford a car. I mean, why else would anyone hitchhike?
[HITCHHIKERS TALKING WITH DRIVER]
DUBNER: Here are a few hitchhikers we found out in Oregon. There were three of them: Teryani, a guy named Stove, and their friend, George Jemmott.
George JEMMOTT: So, I’m George Jemmott, and I have an engineering degree that I only sometimes use. But my real passion and addiction is travel, and fixing things.
DUBNER: George has hitchhiked a good bit – in about 10 foreign countries and all over the U.S.
DUBNER: So, you do hitchhiking because you want to, not because you have to really, right?
JEMMOTT: Almost always, yeah.
DUBNER: Almost always. So, you’re a twenty-five-year-old American with an engineering degree and parental support, and all that kind of stuff, who helped you buy a car, gave you a hand-me-down car, offered to buy you a train pass to get home, and you say, no I just want to go down to the road and put my thumb out. What does that say about you and folks like you in the hitchhiking community now who do it not out of necessity, but out a desire for experience?
JEMMOTT: I think you just hit the nail on the head there, is desire for experience. About me particularly, it’s that I’m addicted to travel and novelty, and I definitely could not normally, and sustainably extend my vacations and travels as much as I have without hitchhiking. The other big motivation for a lot of us hitchhikers, the ones that I’ve talked to is just learning other people’s perspectives on life. And it’s much easier, I think, to get a sort of feeling for how someone else lives quickly if you’re riding in a car with them for hours.
DUBNER: So a guy like George Jemmott hitchhikes not really because he needs to but to “get sort of the feeling for how someone else lives.” But what about the people who might need to hitchhike, out of necessity, but don’t, out of fear? On the other hand: maybe there’s not as much need as we think:
LEVITT: Clearly people are getting richer.
DUBNER: That’s Steve Levitt again. Did you hear what he said?
LEVITT: Clearly people are getting richer, and cars getting better made has to be a big part of it, because it’s an extremely ineffective way to travel, hitchhiking. It’s slow, it’s unpleasant, it’s uncertain. So if you can do something better, whether it’s take a bus, or take a plane, or drive your own car, it’s hard to believe that there are many people who wouldn’t prefer a different mode of transportation.
DUBNER: So maybe hitchhiking started to disappear because fewer people needed a free lift.
Alan PISARSKI: Most reporters ask me how do I get to work, and I tell them I walk about thirty feet from my bedroom to my office.
DUBNER: This is Alan Pisarski. He’s what you might call a scholar of transportation behavior. He used to work for the U.S. Department of Transportation, and he wrote a series of books calledCommuting in America.
DUBNER: So we are in agreement that there used to be quite a bit of hitchhiking, although we don’t know how much. We are in agreement that there’s much less now, correct?
DUBNER: So, we want to know where did all those hitchhikers go? Why did so many people stop hitchhiking?
PISARSKI: I guess my reflex, statistical reflex, is the greater availability of automobiles. Well the first part of it is simply driver’s licenses. In the seventies is when women began to gain greater access to drivers licenses, if you look at the distributions today, men and women in terms of driver’s licensing is almost, almost identical and almost ubiquitous. It’s in the ninety-two, ninety-three percentile for both men and for women.
DUBNER: OK, so a lot more people driving – but also, says Pisarski, there are a lot more cars. In 1969, only three in ten households had more than one car. By 2009? Six in ten.
PISARSKI: All of the really significant change occurred in the two- and three-car households. That’s where you saw an explosion and all of the growth.
DUBNER: OK, so you’re telling me more drivers licenses, more cars. Talk to me about the cars themselves and longevity.
PISARSKI: I think that’s an important component. One of the things that people I think don’t recognize, one of the great technological changes that we’ve seen in America in the last thirty years is simply the longevity of the vehicle fleet. Back in the sixties, cars did not last all that long. Today, the average age of a vehicle in America is north of nine years. What that means is that it’s entirely possible to buy a ten or a twelve-year-old small car, perfectly serviceable, still functioning quite adequately, at a very reasonable cost. So, the automobile in that sense has become much more accessible to many parts of the population. I came down to this studio in a fourteen-year-old car.
DUBNER: That makes sense – cheap and easy car ownership helped drive down demand for hitchhiking – along with big changes in how we get around generally.
PISARSKI: The one is the advent of the interstate, which took people off of Main Street and onto roads where walkers are not permitted. And then of course deregulation of aviation in roughly 1980, that had an extraordinary effect on the price of air travel. And so, you know, that made it a whole lot cheaper than standing on a street corner with your thumb out.
DUBNER: But here’s something else worth thinking about. If you care even a little bit about transportation – about the cost, the growing congestion and the risk of accident, the carbon emissions from all those cars on the road – then consider this very sobering statistic: The average car commuting to and from work in the U.S. today rides around with 80 percent of its passenger capacity empty. If our auto fleet were a bus or train fleet, it’d be considered a massive failure.
PISARSKI: One of America’s greatest transportation resources are all those empty seats in automobiles traveling around America. I mean, it’s a colossal resource that we do waste.
DUBNER: Given that there is this massive inefficiency with all this empty capacity in cars, do you wish that hitchhiking could come back?
PISARSKI: Yeah, I think I do. And I think that maybe we will see some opportunity for it with new technologies and people being more willing to spend time with each other and maybe having some kind of a vetting system that says this guy’s OK that puts people a little bit more at ease. And then that will, I hope, help people to be more comfortable with that kind of an arrangement.
[DRIVERS CALLING OUT DESTINATIONS]
DUBNER: Such technologies and vetting systems already exist, in various forms. The ride-sharing board on Craigslist. Or Avego, a technology company that provides real-time ride-sharing information via apps and the web. And then there’s the practice known as slugging …
PISARSKI: Slugging for those who don’t know is basically a kind of organized hitchhiking, where people just line up on the streets. Sometimes there’s a sign, sometimes there’s not.
DUBNER: We sent Alan Pisarski out on the streets of Arlington, Virginia, where there’s a healthy slugging scene.
PISARSKI: Everybody going to a certain area clusters together, cars will come along looking for people going their way so they can qualify to be on the HOV three lanes, which gives them a much faster ride down to the southern suburbs. We’re looking now at about seven or eight cars lined up to pick up people. When we ask folks questions we have to be pretty quick, a little bit nimble, almost like talking to people in a check-out line in the supermarket because they’re more interested in getting in the car and heading home.
[SLUGGERS: I pull up every day...And says three for Roslyn, three for Pentagon, three for Crystal City...I might have to wait maybe five, ten minutes for a rider, and then I get on the road...It saves me about $20 a day in commuting costs...There’s website that actually has etiquette rules on it...Don’t talk to a driver unless he talks to you, don’t touch anything in the car unless you ask the driver...You get to ride in some pretty nice cars, too...Don’t eat or drink in the car unless you ask...It’s pretty nice little arrangement...So some people will talk to you the whole way down, some people will just keep their mouths shut...I usually get home at the same time every day.
DUBNER: Slugging is a lot more organized than hitchhiking. And a lot of these people are government employees, wearing suits, and ID tags – so they don’t exactly conjure the image of the slaughterhouse hitchhiker from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or the creepy couple who kidnapped Colleen Stan. Of course, the normal risks of auto travel still apply.
SLUGGER: I was a rider and the driver was falling asleep behind the wheel.
PISARSKI: Uh oh. Uh oh.
SLUGGER: So you have to try to, you know, wake up! If you’re going to fall asleep, let me out I’ll find a way home, or try to keep your eyes open.
DUBNER: What are you scared of, and why? Are your fears rational? Or do you let the small likelihood of a terrible outcome stop you from doing things you really want to do? You know what I think we fear most in this country? Strangers. We’ve done a great job – through our media, our movies, even our politics – of convincing ourselves that strangers are dangerous. But if you look at the data, you might be surprised. Three of every four murder victims in this country knew their killer – and of course each of us knows a lot fewer people than there are strangers. More than 60 percent of rape victims knew their attacker. If you look at the data on missing children, you’ll see that an incredibly small percentage of those incidents – way, way less than even one-tenth of one percent – are what we think of as the stereotypical kidnapping by a stranger. Now, how dangerous was hitchhiking? We may never really know. But almost certainly far, far, far less dangerous than we came to think of it. Are we worse off for abandoning it? That’s what I asked Bill James.
DUBNER: So there was an equilibrium that existed, and then it was destroyed in large part because of fear. And the equilibrium went away, and it’s probably impossible to recreate. Do you think it’d be a good thing if that fear could be suspended, the equilibrium could be recreated, and hitchhiking could be reinvigorated?
JAMES: Yes, I do. And the reason I do is that we have a better society when we can trust one another. And wherever and whenever there’s an evaporation of systems based on trust I think there’s a loss to society. I also think that one evaporation of trust in society tends to feed another, and that we would have a better society if we could, rather than promoting fear and working to reduce the places where terrible things happen, if we could promote trust and work on building societies in which people are more trustworthy. I think we’re all better off in a million different ways if and when we can do that.
DUBNER: So let’s see: our economy is still sputtering, which means money is tight for transportation and everything else … when we drive to work, 80 percent of our passenger capacity is wasted … and, as Bill James puts it, a loss of trust means a loss to society. And, oh yeah, about that sputtering economy? The President of the United States, despite the conventional wisdom, is nearly powerless to do anything about it. So if you’re feeling a little bit patriotic today, a little bit optimistic, a little bit adventuresome -- go ahead, stick your thumb out, won’t you?
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