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Notes From an Imperfect Paradise (Ep. 380)

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti is just about the only prominent Democrat not running for President in 2020. After hearing him talk about his plans to fix L.A.’s water and transportation problems (and turn a profit from hosting the Olympics) you might wonder why. (Photo: Kyle Espeleta)

Recorded live in Los Angeles. Guests include Mayor Eric Garcetti, the “Earthquake Lady,” the head of the Port of L.A., and a scientist with NASA’s Planetary Protection team. With co-host Angela Duckworth, fact-checker Mike Maughan, and the worldwide debut of Luis Guerra and the Freakonomics Radio Orchestra.

Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Stephen DUBNER: This week, Freakonomics Radio being recorded live at the Theater at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Our show is typically produced in a studio. Tonight, not only do we have the pleasure of working with a live audience, but also live music. So would you please welcome, in their worldwide debut, the composer behind the music you hear on our show every week: Luis Guerra and the Freakonomics Radio Orchestra. And also joining us tonight as co-host: the University of Pennsylvania psychology professor — she’s also the author of the great book Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance — would you please welcome Angela Duckworth. Angela, hello.

Angela DUCKWORTH: Hi Stephen.

DUBNER: I’m dying to know what you’re working on that we should all know about.

DUCKWORTH: I recently did an eight-minute intervention. We asked students to give advice to other students. So we didn’t give them money, we didn’t give them information, we simply asked them to help other kids. They answered questions about how not to procrastinate, how to stay off their cell phone, in eight minutes. And then we followed them for a full marking period. And the students, just by being asked for their advice got more motivated and did better in school.

DUBNER: So just telling other people what they should do with their lives makes you better off?

DUCKWORTH: It’s not intuitive because everyone does that all the time. But in this particular case, the way we asked the questions, yeah.

DUBNER: I like it. Angela, as you know, we sometimes play a game during these live shows, called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.” And what we do is we bring onstage a series of guests from various backgrounds and disciplines. And we will ask them to tell us something particularly interesting about their field. You and I will then ask them some questions. And then later on, our live audience will pick a winner.

The criteria are very simple. No. 1: did they tell us something we truly did not know? No. 2: was it worth knowing? And No. 3: was it demonstrably true? And to help with that demonstrably true part, would you please welcome our real-time fact checker. He is the head of Global Insights at Qualtrics, he’s the co-founder of Five for the Fight, the campaign to eradicate cancer: Mike Maughan. Hey Mike, first time in L.A. for us doing the show. Do you want to tell us some little-known facts about L.A.?

Mike MAUGHAN: So, L.A. is a unique place. It is illegal to drive more than 2,000 sheep down Hollywood Boulevard. A shocking number of people have been arrested for that in the last two centuries. The L.A. coroner’s office has a gift shop — just weird. And while San Francisco probably wants to own it, L.A. is regarded as the birthplace of the internet because the first transmission was sent from U.C.L.A. up to Menlo Park in 1969. Now, unfortunately, this is also the birthplace of the Kardashians and animatronic robots.

DUBNER: Win some, lose some. Mike Maughan, thank you so much. I think it’s time to get started. Our first guest tonight, would you please welcome — he is your mayor: Eric Garcetti.

Eric GARCETTI: Wow. Welcome to the City of Angels. Great to have you guys here.

DUBNER: Mayor Garcetti, we New Yorkers feel that we’ve got a pretty accurate picture of life in California, especially southern California. It’s basically earthquakes, wildfires, and Kardashians. So I’m just curious: is there anything else going on here, generally?

GARCETTI: Well, we are looking into getting an animatronic Kardashian, so the two things will come together soon. But, no, That’s pretty much the full sum of this amazing city. It is a very simple place, but I like to call it sort of an imperfect paradise.

DUBNER: What in your view are the imperfect parts that you are most concerned about?

GARCETTI: I think our biggest challenges are around poverty; housing connected to that especially, homelessness; traffic and transportation. And then I’d say the third thing that we are faced with is trying to figure out how we can take our pluralism and make that work. I think we do a pretty darn good job compared to other places. Los Angeles I like to say, it’s a place where everybody feels like they belong. A lot of people like “diversity” and “inclusion” as words, I think they’re less good. You know, the hometown buffet is diverse. “Inclusion” implies someone’s powerful and is including you. But “belonging” is a great equalizer.

DUBNER: So let’s talk about transportation a bit. Most people from not here, like us, when we think about L.A. — I think of it as a geographically massive place which therefore requires a big dependence on cars, which therefore means a lot of congestion. And then when it comes to public transport we think of slow buses and not many trains. So tell me where that perception is right and wrong and what you’re doing about it.

GARCETTI: Well, we used to have the best public transportation system probably in the country. The red car and the yellow cars. We can go through the conspiracies of whether it was the car companies and the oil companies who killed them off.

DUBNER: Go through those conspiracies.

GARCETTI: Well, okay. Speaking of Roger Rabbit. It’s mostly not true that there was some conspiracy behind it. We’ve always been on the cutting edge of transportation, and freeways actually worked for a long time. It was 20 minutes anywhere. We were building the future, the way people talk about autonomous vehicles now, the way they talked about subways before that. We thought for a while, rail cars are so yesterday, let’s just get rid of all them because cars will be here forever. That led to a problem or two.

But we’re changing that. I mean, we just passed the largest transportation initiative in American history at the local level. We’re going to be building 15 rapid transit lines at once. Today, we’re already the third largest light rail line. But it’s like winning the lottery today in L.A. Like, if you’re lucky enough to live on that line and work over there and it might take you— you’re like, “Wow, I won.” We want to make that more than 5 percent, which is what it is today.

Second, I think we’re solving it by trying to plan better communities. We used to segregate away where we work, where we play, where we live. And now we’re trying to build communities where you can actually walk. And third, we’re on the cutting edge of technology we are saying yes to testing things here whether it is connected cars and autonomous vehicles, whether it’s things like Hyperloop or the Boring Company.

DUBNER: Was that Elon whooping?

GARCETTI: Yeah, that was Elon Musk. If you look under your seats right now there’s actually a free Tesla key for everybody. You’re a winner. You’re a winner.

DUCKWORTH: It’s inspiring to listen to you. But if there is one secular trend that is indisputable when you look at generations of young people who grew up in the ’60s compared to the ’70s, and then on to the millennials, that young people are getting more cynical and less trusting of politicians and political institutions. What is your message to the young people today?

GARCETTI: Well two things. You diagnose it exactly right. I think it’s— I’m going to get fact checked on this, shoot. There’s some polling company that every year polls America’s trust in institutions — there’s 15 different institutions and only three in America are above 50 percent. Police just barely, military, and small businesses. So journalism, way underwater. Not surprisingly, the White House, way underwater. Congress way underwater.

People don’t trust big institutions because we’ve read so many stories of folks letting them down. “Oh I believed in God, but then I read a story about priests. Oh I believed in journalists, and then I came on this podcast.” Stories like that where your faith is just fundamentally challenged. But anyway, my message is that something like politics isn’t something that people — like I own. It’s not about mayors or members of Congress or your president or your governor; it’s about you. You either exercise the power you have, or you cede that to someone else.

And every day at the local level, I have this great brotherhood and sisterhood of mayors both in the United States and globally, who don’t have the option to argue about stuff. We have to address global warming because there’s fires right next to us. We have to deal with inequality because it’s on our streets. So don’t just leave it up to elected leaders, get engaged get involved, and don’t cede the power to Washington before you even exercise it.

DUBNER: Mr. Mayor, I understand that your administration moved L.A.’s city mail to Gmail, making it the first, I guess, major city to have their email in the cloud. Is that true?

GARCETTI: Yes.

DUBNER: Is it also true that you required all city workers to use the same password, which was “awesomemayor12345”?

GARCETTI: Yeah, I mean it’s just the default password, you can change it afterwards. But 92 percent of them haven’t. So, I enjoy reading their emails.

DUBNER: Now, speaking of you knowing so well the data — L.A. was recently acknowledged, I believe, as the best U.S. city at using data to drive governance.

GARCETTI: It’s like being the tallest building in Wichita, but I’ll take it. No, all kidding aside, we’re proud of opening up our data and sharing it with journalists and hackers and people who can use this data. I mean the positive sense of hackers who can come in and do things to empower the city.

DUBNER: Can you tell us something that you learned through the use of administrative data that otherwise — either the identification of a problem or the idea of a solution — that you wouldn’t have known?

GARCETTI: So everybody’s watched Chinatown, the great movie, how we stole water from Owens Valley.

DUBNER: Owens Valley is what — who administers it?

GARCETTI: It’s a number of counties up there that are run by those supervisors, but Los Angeles, the City of Los Angeles — I learned this — our land holdings in Owens Valley are larger than the entire city of L.A. And I realized we need to do something special because of the drought. And I found out, here’s the statistic, that 260 million gallons of water a day was going from our toilets and our sinks to the Hyperion water treatment plant right next to LAX. And we were cleaning it up to no longer be contaminated and then flushing it out to the ocean. And that was about three times the equivalent of the L.A. Aqueduct.

So what William Mulholland had engineered to come to L.A., we could essentially quadruple the amount of water in this town from those two sources by simply recycling 100 percent of that, which we announced two months ago after working on this for a few years we would do, and we will accomplish. But yeah I mean I think literally was one of those moments where if I hadn’t read that number I don’t think I would’ve made that decision and I don’t think we would have done the biggest infrastructure change to our water in a hundred years.

DUCKWORTH: So what were you like when you were 16 years old? What was your social group?

GARCETTI: My social group was theater nerds.

DUCKWORTH: You were a theater nerd.

GARCETTI: Yeah. There’s ten of us here and we all keep in touch. Thanks for coming.

DUCKWORTH: Like stage crew?

GARCETTI: No, I was on the stage. And I was a budding activist, I would say. I mean, I was this weird mix that’s reflective of this city. I’m your average Angelino — I have an Italian last name, I’m half-Mexican, half-Jewish. I was really into human rights, and I found my place in those two things, being in and of the world, trying to pursue human-rights stuff and getting on a stage when you’re scared as — I don’t know, can we swear here?

DUBNER: Sure.

GARCETTI: Scared as s—.

DUBNER: I mean, it’s your city. You shouldn’t be asking us if you can swear.

GARCETTI: You guys can all swear tonight.

DUBNER: Thanks. Appreciate it. Oh speaking of favors, Luis Guerra, our bandleader, apparently has a few parking tickets.

GARCETTI: Oh, I know. And I thank him for those. Keep on doing it, man. We need that revenue. More firefighters, longer hours at our library. Keep parking.

DUBNER: So let me ask you this. There are roughly half a million Democratic candidates running for president in 2020, one of which is not you. Many of which are less prominent than you, however. So why not? And don’t, please, if you don’t mind, give me the standard answer about loving your current job and wanting to serve out your term. Because we know that that stops no one else.

GARCETTI: I can only speak for myself, but it should. Look, in politics, people live so much of their careers oftentimes in the future that they ignore the present and what they have. And that’s not just for politicians, that’s all of us. We’re always like, “Cool, I got an Apple iPhone 8, when’s 9 coming out?” It is something that we have to discipline ourselves, and I went through it and I thought I had something I still would have something to add to it. But it’s very difficult to be the C.E.O. of a city — and if you have a conscience, not run that city. If a teachers strike, like we had in January, breaks out or an earthquake comes, God forbid. Life’s long and we’ll figure out the future, I would say.

DUBNER: So from what I’ve read, your style of governance seems to be really collaborative as opposed to the command-and-control or shout-and-scream that we see in Washington a lot. If you could sort of magically invoke one change in federal government that would produce more collaboration, or at least less outright intransigence, what would you do?

GARCETTI: So in D.C. we have this repeal-and-replace mentality. As soon as I can get into government I’m gonna just repeal everything that the last folks did and replace it with my philosophy. And we see compromise as some sort of dirty word, and I think that’s really toxic. At the local level, we can’t afford to do that.

You know, we raised the minimum wage here in L.A., but we also reduced our city’s business tax. Think about that for a second. If you’re a Democrat, you’re supposed to raise both of those things. If you’re Republican, you’re supposed to lower both of them. But we know putting more money in the pocket of folks who are gonna spend it on Main Street is good for the economy, as is lowering the city’s business tax that we have based on gross receipts, which is anti-business.

So if I could change one thing in Washington this is totally radical but I would maybe get rid of political parties altogether. I think our founders envisioned factions, not parties, and it’s the most destructive thing we have right now.

DUBNER: Yeah. Sign me up for that. So let me just ask you — this is an even less palatable idea to most people than yours. But even if the people going in have the best intentions — which I truly believe they often do, they want to serve the public good — that once you get into the system your incentives change, that rather than long-termism, which we want for policy, you get involved in a lot of short-termism, in terms of consolidating power and getting re-elected. So, from an economic perspective, I could see perhaps aligning incentives better by, let’s say, rewarding elected officials financially by setting up some revenue-share that pays off over the long term if the projects that they work on actually work out.

GARCETTI: Here’s a way that you could sell that. Instead of talking about redistribution, talk about the idea of pre-distribution. The idea is sovereign-wealth funds. So maybe it’s not a reward for the politician or the elected official but for all of us in which I would have a stake too. That if we are able to do something that has some payoff, we put 20 percent of that into some public good.

But it’s not just a check that’s after the fact. It would say we’d go back to state universities having free tuition. Not just something that we figure out afterwards by taking more money from the super wealthy or from corporations, but actually something that’s an investment at the front end. So then I would have an incentive.

Because I do think it’s a caricature that people who are elected get more and more disconnected. I mean, we pursued the Olympics and won the Olympics and Paralympics for 2028. And people are like, “Oh well, you don’t care about the Olympics, you’re not going to even be mayor then if there’s cost overruns.” And I say, “No, I’m going to be worse than a mayor. I’m going to be a taxpayer living here in Los Angeles.”

DUBNER: Most economists argue that when cities or regions go for a big public event like the Olympics or conventions, World Cup and so on, that usually, fiscally, it turns out not to be good for the city. I know L.A. has successfully done the Olympics before. Obviously you think it can work well here again. Why? Why is L.A. different — is it because of the existence of the infrastructure?

GARCETTI: It’s our infrastructure, and the way we do the Olympics. So we’ve had it twice before. In 1932, we turned a million-dollar profit. In 1984, we introduced a whole new model with sponsorship and kind of saved the Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Committee was broke, and we made hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s the infrastructure. And people do things like build a new railway to Sochi. Well that’s not the Olympics. That was a $50 billion or whatever it was railway that people put into the Olympics as if that’s an inherent cost of the Olympics—

DUBNER: It’s a boondoggle. And you’re getting your boondoggles in early now so they can—

GARCETTI: Better, better than that. We delayed until 2028, let Paris go first in 2024 and we negotiated $160 million up front. So $16 million a year has been going into doubling the number of kids who get swim classes. And African-American, Latino kids, over half of them don’t know how to swim and it’s the second-leading accidental killer of kids under 12. So we are putting into public good now.

And the main reasons why L.A. can get away with it and other places are right to avoid it is we’re not building an Olympic village, we’re using U.C.L.A., so we’re just renting those rooms. We’ve got all the infrastructure, the most expensive stadium in human history has been built without public subsidy in Inglewood here for the Rams and the Chargers, we’re going to use that. We have the Coliseum, we have the Staples Center, so we’re just renting the incredible sports facilities we already have here. We have a velodrome, we’ve got tennis courts. So, most other cities are smart to not bid, but we hope to get the Olympics to chill out on needing to build so many new things.

DUBNER: So the moral of the story is the Olympics should only be held in Los Angeles.

GARCETTI: Correct.

DUBNER: There’s one question I want to ask you, and we ask this to a lot of substantial people: What’s something that you believed for a long time to be true until you found out that you were wrong?

GARCETTI: Well, I mentioned it a bit already. I think that I was one of those Democrats who always thought you can never lower taxes. And I think that I’ve seen in practice that businesses do make their decisions based on what their taxes are. That’s definitely one.

I think the other thing— I used to think you could dismiss people’s fears, and let’s say in a town hall meeting where people don’t want a homeless shelter in their neighborhood, that it was okay to just say, “You’re wrong,” or that somebody is racist about something, or this, that, and the other. And I realized over time you have to understand people’s fears, that they usually come from a real place, and until you understand that, you can’t transform it.

DUBNER: Mike Maughan, the mayor told us a lot of things about Los Angeles. Any facts we need to be concerned with?

MAUGHAN: So a couple of things that are interesting. He was rated one of the top five most dateable mayors in America, despite the fact that he’s married to the incredible Amy Wakeland.

GARCETTI: Thank you. I was going to say, I’m not dateable at all.

MAUGHAN: I did want to say one one thing about diversity which was interesting. There is a large study that just came out that ranks L.A. itself, not greater Los Angeles, as the 63rd most diverse city in terms of racial and ethnic diversity. It moves up to the eighth most diverse city when you take into account income, education, language, industry, class, age, religion. etc.

The most interesting thing I think you talked about was how hometown buffets also have diversity. You’ll be interested to know that in Canada, some buffets offer jellied moose nose. In Japan, you can get tuna eyeballs. But most impressive was a man in Springfield, Massachusetts, who ate all the diversity and was kicked out of a buffet after spending more than seven hours on site eating more than 50 pounds of food. So it is possible to get all the diversity at once.

DUBNER: Thank you Mike Maughan, and thanks especially to Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles. Our next guest is a seismologist at Caltech, and she’s a leading authority on earthquake risk. Would you please welcome Lucy Jones. It was so interesting to me that people clapped for earthquakes. So tell us something we don’t know about earthquakes, let’s start there.

Lucy JONES: I think most people think of California as a place with a lot of earthquakes. The reality is we don’t have enough. Now maybe that’s only something a seismologist is going to say, but we can look at the geology and see how many we should have, and especially the last couple of decades have been particularly quiet. We call it an earthquake drought, and the only downside of it is it leads to complacency. People think that this is what we have to be ready for and we need to remember that in the long run we get more.

DUBNER: Very interesting. So for 20 years, that timescale is probably just not significant when you’re thinking earthquakes, yes?

JONES: On the larger ones. That’s right. And actually if you want to see some really interesting debates, watch geologists try to do statistics. A lot of us struggle on how to do it correctly and we argue over it. But if you go to small enough earthquakes then you have a lot of them and it’s statistically significant that the last 20 years is quite a bit quieter than the previous century.

DUBNER: So quick two-part question. I want you to tell us about earthquake prediction and how it’s changed over recent decades. And then related to that, what can you tell us about the probability of a big bad earthquake, let’s say in California in the next let’s say 10, 20, and 50 years?

JONES: Okay. I’ll start with the last one and just say, the big earthquake on the San Andreas 7.8, 8, something like that, is absolutely inevitable. Just give me enough time.

DUBNER: Enough time, we’re talking decades, centuries, what?

JONES: Well all right. So we average 150 years—

DUBNER: Can I just say, you sound a little too excited about the probability.

JONES: I don’t get to create my own experiments I have to wait for what the earth is going to give me. And I came in here in my first decade, we had a lot of earthquakes. We had Whittier Narrows, we had Northridge, we had Loma Prieta, and then for the next 25 years at the end of my career, nothing. I miss them. But I realize that not everybody else does.

The problem is that the pattern really is random. I can give you a rate. I can do the earthquake climate if you will. But what we don’t have is the particular storm. You know when the rain’s coming in tonight and my iPhone says there’s a 50 percent chance of rain starting at 11:00, that’s because they can measure the clouds coming in. There’s nothing that has to come in for the earthquake to happen, or if there is, it happens for every earthquake and there’s — there’s an average an earthquake once every three minutes in Southern California.

DUCKWORTH: So what do you mean that it’s random? Do you really mean that it’s random?

JONES: Yeah, statistically as far as we can tell it really is random. Now you think, okay, we’re building up the stress on the fault. The earthquakes should happen when the stress is built up. The problem is that the earthquakes actually happen at stresses much smaller than the breaking strength of the fault, and it’s like if it goes unstable then we go into a different mode, and dynamic friction is much weaker than static friction. And so the timing is controlled by when you happen to get a little break just somewhere on the fault and it goes unstable. We aren’t actually building up to the full strength of the fault.

DUCKWORTH: So does that mean there will never be a time where we can really predict earthquakes?

JONES: I believe we will never predict earthquakes. Now notice my qualifier, I’m a scientist, I don’t say absolutes. The fundamental is: do magnitude ones and magnitude sevens begin in exactly the same way? If they do, there’s nothing to predict. You don’t want me to predict the ones. And as far as we can tell at this point, the ones and the sevens start in the same way.

DUBNER: I know you’re excited for the next big earthquake because it’ll keep you busy, which is not a bad reason to want an earthquake. But most people I would say would probably rather not have a big earthquake for obvious reasons: loss of life and damage and on and on. So let’s talk a little bit about, I guess what you’d call earthquake risk management. Tell us one smart thing and one dumb thing that California has done to manage earthquake risk.

JONES: So the really smart thing that Mayor Garcetti did is listen to me. He invited me to City Hall. We had a long discussion. We ended up creating a cooperative project where the U.S. Geological Survey, who was my employer at the time, put me in City Hall and together we created the resilience plan. The two biggest things generally — we know which are the bad buildings that are going to fall down, and we have mandated repairs. The owners have to spend the money to fix those buildings, so they don’t kill people.

DUBNER: What kind of money are we talking about for retrofitting?

JONES: Billions. I mean there’s about 15,000 buildings involved.

DUBNER: And it’s paid by the owners, right?

JONES: And if it’s a rent-controlled apartment, then it’s split 50/50 with the tenants, but they’re not allowed to put the whole cost onto the tenants. The concrete or commercial buildings, the owner pays for it and he can change his rent as needed or he can choose to tear it down.

DUCKWORTH: Can I ask, you said that the seven is inevitable? Like Superman, the first movie — I mean what does this look like?

JONES: I actually watched that movie with a class of geologists. We got thrown out of the theater. We can look at the geology, and Los Angeles is moving to San Francisco. In just five million years we will be a suburb of San Francisco. And that is inevitable. And it’s not going to be stopped. Plate tectonics goes on. The question is, are we going to take the next step in it tonight or next year or 50 years from now.

DUCKWORTH: And these policies that are building the right infrastructures, do these apply to seven-level earthquakes?

JONES: Absolutely. We do pretty well in a magnitude six. All right. We have had sixes that don’t kill people. So we are gradually building it up. I mean it’s all a relative thing. We absolutely could have a city resilient to it. We can’t stop all damage. We could do a better job with our water system and all that. That Los Angeles Aqueduct he was talking about, it crosses the San Andreas fault in a wooden tunnel built in 1908. And the tunnel is nine feet in diameter and the expected fault offset will be 12 feet, so it won’t exist after the earthquake.

DUBNER: Okay, Mr. Awesome Mayor, what have you done about that?

JONES: They are planning the engineering solution now.

DUBNER: S—. How much greater is the risk of dying in an earthquake in California versus, let’s say New York?

JONES: Not much. We have a lot more earthquakes, but you have a lot worse buildings. There was a study that said what’s the expected money to be lost in the different urban areas. Los Angeles is No. 1, San Francisco’s No. 2, Seattle’s No. 3, and New York is No. 4.

DUBNER: I understand that earthquake insurance is not required in California and that roughly just 15 percent of property owners have it. Should it be required?

JONES: Oh, that’s a different policy question than science, but it is going to hurt our economy very badly. You can look at what happened to San Francisco in 1906. It was the only city that mattered on the West Coast in 1905. That earthquake happened and essentially destroyed the whole city. The next decade is the biggest growth decade in the history of Los Angeles. People gave up on San Francisco and came south. Their economy went down for decades, and you can argue that San Francisco never regained its position.

DUBNER: Mike Maughan, Lucy Jones says the big one is coming, and she can’t wait. Did you turn up any facts that are worth revisiting?

MAUGHAN: There is in theory this sliver of land between the fault in the ocean where that will break off and then L.A. would slide past San Francisco, so that’s a real thing. I’d bet on that.

JONES: In five billion years.

MAUGHAN: Yeah, well sure. But what’s time? On a positive note, earthquakes are the only natural disaster not affected by climate change. Lucky us. A few things to add: we are in this earthquake drought. We’re also in a drought of moral leadership, human intelligence, and good Nicolas Cage movies.

DUBNER: Mike, thank you and Lucy Jones, thank you so much for joining us.

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DUBNER: Welcome back to Freakonomics Radio Live. My co-host is Angela Duckworth. Our live fact checker is Mike Maughan and we’ve got live music tonight from the Freakonomics Radio Orchestra, which includes composer and bassist Luis Guerra; on drums, Mike Longoria; on guitar, Jimmy Messer; on horns and strings, Dan Weinstein; and on keys and good vibes, Kahlil Sabbagh.

Our next guest is executive director of the Port of Los Angeles: Gene SerokaGene, I understand the Port of L.A. is the biggest container port in the U.S., bringing in about 37 percent of imports. Is that about right, for starters?

Gene SEROKA: Combined with Long Beach, we bring in 37 percent, but we account for about a fifth of all the traffic that moves in the United States.

DUBNER: Okay, so I’d love you to tell us something we don’t know about the Port of L.A. and us being neither port people nor L.A. people, that could be pretty much anything.

SEROKA: One of our biggest exports is air.

DUBNER: Air.

SEROKA: Empty containers.

DUBNER: Oh, is this about China?

SEROKA: We’re pretty dependent as a nation on imports. So we’ve got a balance of about two imports to every one export, and the balance of those containers we work around the clock to get back to Asia so they can get the next round of imports.

DUBNER: So this is containers deadheading their way back to China to fill up to send us more stuff.

SEROKA: That’s exactly it.

DUBNER: Gotcha. Okay, so what are the mechanics, let’s say, and logistics and costs of shipping full stuff vs. air.

SEROKA: Well if you’re shipping a lot of air you’re losing money. So you want to make sure you have round-trip economics, bringing imports in and exports out. And even if you have to overreach and get a little more market share in an area that you may not have the relative strength in.

DUBNER: I am curious about the empty versus full ships. How has that ratio changed over the last whatever, five or 10 years?

SEROKA: It’s remained pretty consistent. We as a country have outsourced our manufacturing since the late ’70s, early ’80s, and us as consumers want to go find the product as quickly as we can, and we’re going to keep doing that because the price points are so great. But what we’ve seen is that right now, the largest export from the United States to Asia is waste paper.

DUBNER: I thought that was changing — that China is accepting much less waste from us for recycling.

SEROKA: Yeah, the Green Fence Policy, this predated all the debates that are happening between Washington and Beijing today. But the idea is exactly as you said, Stephen, to try to clean up the waste products that we ship back to China. Now wastepaper goes back, gets refined, and it makes those corrugated boxes that ship our TV’s and our washing machines back here to the U.S.

DUBNER: Big question. We’re in the middle, maybe, of a historic confrontation between the U.S. and China on trade and tariffs. I’m curious to know how this whole political chapter has been affecting business at the port.

SEROKA: The numbers at the port today are at record highs. You look under the hood, it’s a little bit different recently. We’ve seen a lot of imports advanced to get underneath the tariffs or taxation, and we’ve seen a paucity of exports — or really a precipitous drop of exports — because the retaliatory tariffs and the fact that those goods aren’t as marketable as they have been in the past.

DUBNER: A drop in the exports because they don’t want the stuff to get there with the uncertainty of knowing what the retaliatory tariffs will be, or just because it’s already taken effect here?

SEROKA: A little bit of both.

DUBNER: Yeah. When things are going on in D.C. or Beijing, when there’s disagreements and so on. Your logistics must run on a very, very, very long time frame. And I’m curious to know when the butterfly flaps its wings in one of those places, how long it takes to get to you.

SEROKA: Yeah. Realistically speaking, it takes about six months of thought that goes into bringing cargo back here to Los Angeles. So there’s a merchandiser somewhere with a big retailer in the Midwest that says I want to buy 20 million widgets. They put an order into a factory. Those goods are manufactured. They’re put into the supply chain and moved all the way through and get here to L.A. So when you and I decide that we want to go online and buy something and get next-day delivery, all of that has taken about six months of thought beforehand.

DUBNER: I understand that the port caught more than 1,500 kilos of meth that was being smuggled to Australia. So my first question is: Isn’t meth really easy to make and shouldn’t Australians be able to make their own? Was that question not in your purview as a—

SEROKA: No, I wouldn’t claim to be an expert there.

DUBNER: Okay. Let’s talk about contraband generally. I’m curious about port security. So tell us what you’re what you’re willing to about people doing what they shouldn’t be doing with your ships coming in or out.

SEROKA: Yeah. Port security is one of the biggest aspects of what we do on a daily basis. We have one of the nation’s only sworn-in civilian police forces. They work directly with all the allied agencies and imagine, from the F.B.I. to the C.I.A., Secret Service, all kinds of folks, to share intelligence and try to stop the bad guys. There could be anything from getting into our systems to find out where our money is flowing, how bank accounts are used both here and overseas, to get ships to move in the wrong direction and cause havoc. All of the above and much more.

DUBNER: And who’s doing that?

SEROKA: Bad guys.

DUBNER: Mike Maughan, Gene Seroka, who runs the Port of L.A. 

SEROKA: America’s port, Stephen.

DUBNER: Oh, America’s port. Gene Seroka has been telling us about the ins and outs of the port. Anything worth calling our attention to?

MAUGHAN: So you mentioned that in January, the port caught a lot of meth that was being smuggled to Australia. The drugs were hidden in metal boxes labeled as loudspeakers. Now to Stephen’s point, making meth apparently isn’t that hard. Don’t worry, I opened an incognito browser to look at this. There are four primary ways to make meth in the U.S., but they have a totally different method that the Mexican cartels use. So it all depends on the flavor you like. Last month, a large Australian newspaper ran a headline that says, “Meth remains our country’s illicit drug of choice!” Exclamation point; they’re very thrilled about it. So there you have it.

DUBNER: Gene Seroka, thank you so much for joining us tonight. It is time now for our final guest. She works at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. And she is specifically with a NASA division called Planetary Protection. Would you please welcome Moogega StrickerMoogega, welcome.

Moogega STRICKER: Thank you.

DUBNER: It would seem that your division, Planetary Protection, has something to do with fighting off— let’s say potential asteroid strikes that would devastate the earth. Is that true?

STRICKER: That is the actual number-one thing that people usually think. But it is wrong. So what I do is I focus on the microbial scale, and protecting other planets from humans, making sure when we explore other planets, bodies, asteroids, that we don’t contaminate it with life that we find on Earth. Especially if there may be life that exists there.

DUBNER: It is so interesting that we’re more concerned about polluting other planets than ours.

DUCKWORTH: Did we do anything wrong with the previous moon landings?

STRICKER: You know, the astronauts when they came back from the moon, they splashed down in the ocean and if there was something on the outside of the container that really could harm humans, we would have been dead right there at splashdown.

DUCKWORTH: But what do you do, though? Like, you can’t go through a car wash on your way back down from space.

STRICKER: What you need to do when you bring something back —humans back or samples back — you need to do a lot of great creative engineering to have capsules within capsules or a sterilization device so that you can prevent anything bad to come back to Earth.

DUBNER: So is this mostly about Mars 2020, what you’re working on?

STRICKER: Yeah, so my job is specifically focused on Mars. Mars 2020 is going to go to the surface of Mars, collect samples, and for the very first time, package them in a way that they can come back to Earth. We’ve never had a sample return mission from Mars.

DUBNER: Okay, so let me ask you this. You don’t sound like a very excited person, I have to say — but what would really, really super-duper excite you about Mars and getting stuff back?

STRICKER: Yeah. The most exciting and ultimate goal is, we’re searching for life. And to be able to find signs of life and actually definitively find a smoking gun, that would be just an exciting dream come true, because it would answer the question: Are we alone in the universe?

DUBNER: So what do you actually do in your job?

STRICKER: So a day in my life would be sitting in a very small room with a bunch of engineers, scientists, and say, “Okay we’re going to plug in the face of the rover onto the body of the rover,” and before we do that, planetary protection, do you need to sample the hardware? So we would go in with our sterile swabs, our wipes, and we would actually scrub or swab the actual surface and go to the lab and see what microbes are present on this component.

DUBNER: What do you think about the microbes that you may encounter elsewhere? And what are the either dangers or potentially benefits of those?

STRICKER: So part two of my job, planetary protection, is when we bring samples back, we have to make sure that it doesn’t harm humans.

DUCKWORTH: So how do you do that? How can you tell?

STRICKER: So one method that was actually done is — for the moon rocks — is feeding it to chickens. I’m not sure why they selected chickens but it’s just one of those tests. How do you prove that you’re not going to kill anybody?

DUCKWORTH: So I imagine that this is such a specific career that not a lot of girls and boys think that they’re going to grow up to be part of the planetary protection lead for Mars. So how did you end up here?

STRICKER: I actually didn’t know planetary protection existed until I was working on my Ph.D. So I was working on plasma sterilizations and they had a project that used plasma to sterilize spacecraft surfaces. Because it’s really tough. You can imagine when you’re innovating these new materials and new spacecraft, a lot of these aren’t capable of going through high-temperature heat sterilization processes. So they need other alternative methods. Plasma was one of those alternatives. So as an undergrad I studied physics, and before that I was just the little kid that watched Carl Sagan‘s The Cosmos and that really put me on the trajectory of, I want to be an astrophysicist, this is what I want to do. And instead of playing in the summertime, I would take classes. Started college at 16 and I’m just like this is what I want to do. So, get out of my way.

DUBNER: So can I ask you, though, just to be clear, there are some people at NASA who are protecting us from the asteroids?

STRICKER: Yes. Don’t worry, they exist. They’re doing their things. 

DUBNER: Can you give me some detail on that, when you say they’re doing their things. And also you’re called Planetary Protection. Which I find to be a very misleading title, I’m not going to lie to you. So what are what are they called?

STRICKER: They’re called Planetary Defense.

DUBNER: Yeah. All right.

STRICKER: Because they’re defending against the asteroids, the impacts.

DUBNER: So let me ask you this. When you find microbes — whether in your lab or maybe somewhere where a spacecraft is being assembled, whatever, and you try to identify the microbes, do you ever find something that hadn’t been previously identified?

STRICKER: Yeah, it’s really great. So the old-school days, back when Planetary Protection started, it was very culture-based. That means we would take a sample. We would grow it up in the lab and based on whatever grew, we would identify it. And now that we’ve fast forwarded to DNA-based analysis, we’ve seen so much more. If you look at the soil, 0.1 percent of microbes in the soil are even able to be grown in a lab. So it’s just a tiny sliver what exists. So yeah, we discover so many new things there are actually hundreds of new species that were discovered just in our assessment in this spacecraft assembly facility.

DUBNER: No kidding.

STRICKER: Over a hundred.

DUBNER: And then, once you make that discovery, do you try to find it elsewhere on the earth?

STRICKER: Yeah. That’s the beauty of DNA sequencing and databases that are accessible worldwide. There was one microorganism we found in our clean room and the same type popped up in some lake or a cave in China. So we’re 23andMe-ing all of the bacteria that exists around the world.

DUBNER: And what does linking that information actually get you? How does it advance the science, or what does that enable you to do that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible?

STRICKER: So for example, a lot of the medical-devices industry, when you go in and you get a colonoscopy or an endoscopy, and you want to make sure that they clean it off and everything is kept nice. We discovered that in the process of sterilizing these devices, they use something called a biological indicator. This is the hardiest, strongest champion of microbes that if we kill that, we’ve killed everything else. And so this biological indicator has changed over time because we’ve discovered these new microbes. And in our clean room, we’ve discovered a microbe that knocked off that biological indicator, that gold standard.

DUBNER: So I’ve read that you once appeared on a reality TV show called King of the Nerds. This is true?

STRICKER: You have a really great researchers.

DUBNER: And we’ve also read that part of the competition was to compose and perform a nerd anthem, and that your anthem was called “Nerds are King.” Is this all true?

STRICKER: Yes.

DUBNER: So I believe that our band has found “Nerds are King” online, and they’re willing to back you up if you are willing to sing it. Are you good with that?

STRICKER: That sounds great. 

Singing: You call me a nerd like it’s a bad thing, but the world is our kingdom, and nerds are king. Representing for the geeks who get put down. Nerds are the new cool and we run this town.

DUBNER: Mike Maughan, fact-check that.

MAUGHAN: That was good. Okay, so, I think the most interesting thing I found was just the way to apply for a job in Planetary Protection. Under job qualification it lists the following things: frequent travel, it doesn’t mention that it’s to Jupiter and Saturn. There are only three technical qualifications that you need: one is advanced knowledge of planetary protection; two, demonstrated experience planning, executing and overseeing elements of space programs of national significance; three, demonstrated skills in diplomacy, probably because you never know when you have to negotiate with aliens.

DUBNER: Thank you so much, Moogega Stricker. That was just great, thank you, and could we please have one more round of applause for all our guests tonight. It is time now for our live audience to tell us who their favorite guest was tonight. Maybe it’s the guest that you would most like to hear from in a future studio episode of Freakonomics Radio. Let’s remember the criteria: Did they tell you something you did not know? Was it truly worth knowing? And was it demonstrably true? So who’s it going to be?

  • Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles,
  • Lucy Jones, who both calmed and frightened us with her earthquake expertise,
  • Gene Seroka, who runs the Port of L.A., America’s port, or
  • Moogega Stricker, who helps protect various planets from various microbes and also composes anthems to nerds.

Okay, the audience vote is in. Once again, thank you so much to all our guests presenters. And our grand-prize winner tonight for telling us about planetary protection, Moogega Stricker. Congratulations. Moogega, to commemorate your victory we’d like to present you with this Certificate of Impressive Knowledge. It reads, “I, Stephen Dubner, in consultation with the great Angela Duckworth and Mike Maughan, do hereby attest that Moogega Stricker told us something we did not know for which we are so grateful.” And that’s our show for tonight. I hope we told you something you did not know. Huge thanks to Mike and Angela, to our guests, to Luis Guerra and the great Freakonomics Radio Orchestra. Thanks especially to all of you for listening this week and every week to Freakonomics Radio. Good night.

*     *     *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. Our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, Matt Hickey, and Corinne Wallace; we had help this week from Morgan Levey and Dan Dzula. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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