Berkeley Talks transcript: Using peer pressure to fight climate change

Dan Kammen: Welcome, this is a real pleasure for me to get to introduce Robert Frank and to both engage in a Q and A and then take your questions. Robert was an undergraduate at Georgia Tech and did his master’s in stats and his Ph.D. in econ here at UC Berkeley, so we can berate what’s changed and that sort of thing at some length. And has been a long time faculty member in the Johnson School at Cornell.

During this time he has been massively prolific in both research articles and in books that both look in detail at what we’re learning from microeconomics, macroeconomics, and a lot of behavioral economics, and applying that to all kinds of interesting systems. We’ll get in a second to his latest book. But in terms of past books, he wrote Principles of Economics with Ben Bernanke who occupied the office next to me at the Wilson School for a while before moving on to other jobs in DC. Choosing the Right Pond, something I think we’ll bring up a little bit later on, Passion Within Reason, Luxury Fever, The Economic Naturalist, which a friend of mine got confused with a number of the sort of Freakonomnics sorts of literature at a couple of different levels. Success and Luck, and today’s Under the Influence.

And for those reading Under the Influence, thinking about climate change, which is how I jumped in. I was, in some ways, incredibly pleasantly surprised that you don’t actually get to climate until well over half the book, and it really highlighted to me one of the many things I hope we’ll talk about, and that is there’s been a very dogmatic look at energy and climate issues of which some of us on stage, not you, are guilty of. But one of the real key lessons that I think has come out of the last sets of effort from Greta Thunberg, efforts from the Extinction Rebellion, from the efforts to think about Friday’s for the Future, is to put this in a much larger context.

And the Green New Deal is one of the topics in the book as well as many of the ways that we have used and misused our understanding of behavioral processes in general to sort of understand where we are. And so I’m keen to hear the run through about the material, but in particular for me when I went through the book, what really struck me was the breadth of which, if you think more broadly about how we can transform behavior, climate change is a critical piece of that, it often occupies a very large part of the story in terms of what the campus community on energy and climate think about, but that bigger context is absolutely critical to try to understand where we’ve had a few successes but where we’ve had just a litany of failures, and really being able to communicate more broadly.

And so, I want to welcome you to Berkeley, welcome you to the Goldman School, I should say welcome you back to Berkeley and look forward to you launching in. And again, we’ll do about 25 minutes of presentation, about equal amount of some dialogue back and forth, and then we’ll open it up to questions and use that as a segue into the refreshments and snack. And once again, thank you and welcome to campus, thank you so much.

Robert Frank: And thank you Dan, it’s a real honor and a pleasure to be back, I always love coming back to Berkeley, I spent four fond years here. And it’s different each time I come back, but it’s always fun to see how it’s evolved. I’m excited especially to talk to you about the new book. The core premise of the book is completely uncontroversial, I hope people would agree. It’s that the social environment is the most important determinant of what we do in most situations. The psychologists have a saying: “It’s the situation, not the person.” The tendency is to explain why somebody does something by asking what kind of person she is, what kind of values she holds, but really the psychologists are on very firm ground when they say you should really look at the social matrix the person finds their self in when you’re trying to predict what she’ll do in that situation.

So for example, if you’re worried that your daughter, your teenage daughter, will become a smoker, it really doesn’t help to know if she’s a science fiction buff or whether she’s good or bad at math. What you need to know is the percentage of her peers who smoke — that’s the uniquely best predictor of whether she will. And it’s a big effect if that number goes from 20 to 30%, she’s 25% more likely to become a smoker. It’s by far the biggest influence on that decision. That’s widely accepted as a true fact about human behavior.

I think it’s also uncontroversial, but less widely noted, that the social environment is itself a consequence of choices we make, so what’s the proportion of smokers out there that influences whether a person will smoke? It’s in part a consequence of whether or not I choose to smoke. And yet, I have never met anybody who said, “I was thinking about smoking, but decided not to because I was worried I might encourage others to smoke.” That’s just not a step most people take, mostly because of the effect that we have on the social environment is minuscule for all practical purposes, so the world would be the same whether we thought about that or not. But collectively, the fact that we don’t think about it has consequences, we have an interest in the social environment since it affects us profoundly in terms of what we do, often for ill, as in the smoking example, but sometimes also for good.

And so, if we could steer people towards being concerned about how their own choices would affect the social environment, that would be a good thing. If we could do it without incurring costs too high in the process. I came across this tweet by an economist I follow on Twitter. She writes, “There is this amazing Tumblr post, presumably from a high schooler somewhere, that I think about often. It just says, ‘I’ve always been told not to give in to peer pressure, but I’ve never been told not to pressure my peers.'”

And so, the thesis of the book in a very simple statement is that there are steps policy makers could take that would encourage us to act as if we care about the social environment. And these steps are neither invasive, nor costly in other ways, many of them have beneficial side effects as I’ll explain. And so, why wouldn’t we want to think about policies to encourage people to act as if they cared about the social environment? And so far as I’ve been able to discover, there’s been virtually no serious attention given to that question at all by policymakers. And my colleagues in economics, most of them are very smart, much smarter than I, why haven’t they written about this is a question I cannot yet answer, because it just seems like what the investors call a greenfield. It’s like when the iPhone came out, there were all these scores of products and services that couldn’t have existed until then, but then it was a gold rush to see who could bring them to market the most quickly. Here we’ve got a greenfield in the public policy domain, there are so many things we could do that would make people behave in ways that either make benign social environments more prevalent or malicious ones less prevalent.

Let me start with an example of why the social environment is more important than most people think. More important certainly than I used to think. I see enough people who know what the Candid Camera show used to be, maybe it’s still available on YouTube. If it is, you should watch some of the old episodes, they’re great. He had a film that he did in the 1970s, and it was like the episodes on the TV show but in one of them he posted an advertisement for a spectacularly good job, it paid really well, it didn’t have any complex requirements, the hours were short, good travel opportunities.

So, of course people contacted the number in the ad and wanted to come and interview for it. They scheduled interviews. People would arrive for the interview at the appointed hour, they’d be shown into a waiting room where there were four people already seated, told to sit and we’ll let you know what’s next. So, the five of them are sitting there, the camera shows them, they’re not talking to one another, they’re all sitting there silently. The film goes on about its business to other scenes, coming back occasionally to see the five guys still sitting there. Then comes back one last time and zooms in on the subject’s face, the subject being the last guy to arrive. He doesn’t know, but we know, that the other four are confederates of Funt [Allen Funt, creator and host of Candid Camera] — they’re working with the filmmaker.

And so, at no apparent signal, the other four stand up and begin taking off all their clothing. And you can see the bewildered look on the subject’s face — “What’s going on here?” But then you can see a look of resignation come onto his visage, he stands and he starts taking off all his clothing, we see him as the scene ends, they’re all standing there naked, waiting for what comes next.

And you want to say, I wanted to say when I saw the film, “I wouldn’t have done that, no way I would have done that.” And I don’t know how many people Funt had to run through this experiment to get somebody to do it, but there were more than one in the film who did it. And I think it’s meant to be an illustration of the folly of being too influenced by your peers, but think about it from the perspective of this guy. It’s a great job, he arrived the last of the five, he doesn’t know what comes next, he doesn’t know if they do or not, but if anybody knows it would be them, not him. They seem to know that now’s the time to get up and start taking off all your clothing. And they’ve made a decision obviously that it’s worth doing and so he does it, too.

And it’s very hard for me thinking about it in those terms to find fault with his decision to do that. It might have been better to say, “Screw this, I’m not gonna do it.” But to be influenced by peers who seem to know what they’re doing is a totally understandable and almost certainly adaptive impulse to have. They don’t know individually maybe any more than you do, but together they probably know much more than you. And if the group is acting in a certain way and they seem to know what you’re doing, you would ignore that queue systematically at your peril.

So, I show in the group there’s quite persuasive evidence, I believe, that peer behavior, social influence, has profound impacts on a variety of problems in the social domain, these are all negatives. I’ll mention some positives momentarily. Problem drinking is very heavily implicated, sexual predation, the #MeToo movement was one of the most vivid examples of behavioral contagion that we’ve seen of late. Cheating, the effect is particularly strong here because most people want to do the right thing, but when they see other people cheating and profiting and not being punished, then they feel like chumps and so there’s an explosive tendency for cheating to increase in an environment where there’s no obvious punishment for doing it. Bullying has been shown to be highly socially contagious. Obesity, if the military sends a family to a new post, a county where the obesity rate is 1% higher than where they were, the adult members of that military family are 5% more likely to become obese while they’re in there new post.

The two very most profound effects of contagion, and the only other ones I’ll talk about, are the way they influence what we spend. The influence here is both profound and the number is big. I estimated in the book, back of the envelope, the fact that we spend in ways that are shaped by what our peers spend causes us to waste probably upwards of $2 trillion a year in the U.S. economy alone. All of the inefficiencies that I call attention to are of the same general ilk. It’s analogous to the situation where all stand to get a better view — no one sees any better than if everyone had remained comfortably seated, you’re not irrational to stand, you don’t regret standing. You don’t see at all if you don’t stand, but it would be better if none of us stood.

In the climate domain, our tendency to buy heavier vehicles to buy bigger houses to have destination weddings. I had never heard of a destination wedding when I got married. Now my kids are going to destination bachelor parties in faraway places, and it’s just a matter of trying to stage a celebration that meets the standards of the particular time and place.

So, take the example of these heavy vehicles. The engineers laughed, the very guys who designed these vehicles were astounded that they sold in such quantities. Why did people need off-road vehicles, they wondered. The only time they go off road is when they miss their driveway on a Saturday night. It’s not necessary to have an off-road vehicle, nor a high-riding vehicle, nor a 7,000-pound vehicle. But if others have these vehicles and you don’t, then you can’t see when you’re in traffic. If you get hit by one, you’re more likely to be injured or killed. And so, if they built bigger or they buy bigger, it makes sense for you to do likewise. But the rub is when everybody has bigger, the risk of injury and death goes up, not down. It’s counterproductive and yet it’s not palpably irrational to have done what the individuals were doing.

On the positive side, we know that if you install a solar panel on your rooftop, that’s the very most important predictor of whether your neighbor will do that. This is Project Sunroof. Google will show you your neighborhood shot from the air. They identified the houses that have solar panels on the rooftops with red dots. Note the pattern, if a house has a red dot, it’s next to another house, or very close to another house that also has one. If it doesn’t have a red dot, it’s in a cluster where none of the neighbors have red dots either. And you can talk to the Renova CEO — that’s our company in Ithaca — and he’ll tell you, “Oh, he put in a new unit on Hanas Lane.” And then he can show you the six units that in the next two months were installed as a direct result of the installation that he first mentioned.

So, I’m gonna just do a quick metaphor for wasteful spending. There’s much more to say about this, but I think this captures the idea. And I’m gonna couch it in the form of a thought experiment. We’ve got two parallel worlds: One is a high-tax world, one is a low-tax world. And in these two worlds, the low-tax world, you can think of it as the U.S. The rich are awash in after tax income, so they buy the Ferrari Berlinetta — that’s the car of choice for wealthy drivers in the U.S. In the high-tax world, you can think Norway, if you want to have a tag for that one, they have much less after tax income, and so they make due with the lowly Porsche 911 Turbo, only $150,000, a third of a million in the low-tax world.

The question then I’ll pose in this thought experiment, who is happier, the wealthy drivers in the low-tax world or the wealthy drivers in the high-tax world, if all other dimensions of the two worlds were exactly the same? And here we don’t have an experiment to give us direct evidence, but there’s a lot of indirect evidence that there would be very little measurable difference in the happiness levels of the drivers. Partly that’s because by the time you get to the Porsche 911 Turbo, that car’s got every feature that has any material impact on handling and performance. Many drivers would say, in fact, it’s a better car in absolute terms than the Ferrari.

Set that to one side, just imagine that the Ferrari is better. If it is, it’s only epsilon better than the Porsche. And at each local environment, since they don’t touch one another, the drivers of these cars would have the knowledge and satisfaction that they were driving the best cars on the road there, so I think it’s a reasonable conjecture that they would be equally happy in these two environments. But the fact is, since the tax laws are so different in the two environments, there will be much more tax revenue in the high-tax world. Take whatever jaundiced view you’d like of how wasteful government is, and the private sector is wasteful too, mind you.

We build bigger houses than we need because others are building bigger. We build heavier vehicles than we need because there’s waste there, too. But let the government be wasteful. They don’t waste everything, and some of the money that goes to them in the form of higher-tax revenues is gonna be spent on road maintenance. And so here’s the question then on the happiness front: Who’s happier, the people who drive their Ferraris on roads like we drive on or the people who drive their Porsches on well-maintained roads? And that’s not even an interesting question. Of course the Porsche drivers will be happier. Find me a guy who would defend that position in front of this smart audience. He would embarrass himself more than even some of our public figures have been embarrassing themselves arguing in the forums of late.

So, it’s clear that if the rich, in this example, allowed themselves to be taxed more heavily, they would be happier because then they would drive cars that cost less, but would still deliver what they’re really looking for. And they would drive them on roads that would be vastly better than the roads they actually do drive them on. So, the claim is higher taxes don’t hurt the rich at all. That’s my claim. I’ve been arguing this for a long time. And I wish I had had the wit earlier in my career to tackle the obvious question: “If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?” question, which is if we would be happier if we taxed ourselves more heavily and invested more vigorously in the public sphere, why don’t we elect people who would do that? That’s a great question. That’s the question I’m gonna try to grapple with here, in the last minutes I’ll spend on the presentation.

So, my answer, or my attempt at an answer, to this question is that the wealthy, the people who think that higher taxes would be injurious to their well-being hold that position because they suffer from what I’m calling “the mother of all cognitive illusions.” We’ve got here in the room one of the pioneers in cognitive illusions — I hope he’ll agree at the end of the talk that this is a big one. What’s the mother of all cognitive illusions?

Let me say a little bit first about cognitive illusions generally. If you are influenced by them, if you reach faulty judgments because of them, it’s not because you’re stupid. That’s important to recognize. So, here is the so-called checkered shadow illusion. I’ve given away the central point by calling it an illusion. Here’s the question: Which square is darker, A or B? How many of you think A is darker? How many of you think B is darker? How many of you think they’re the same? If you’re smart, which everybody in the room obviously is or you wouldn’t have taken the time out to be in this environment in the first place, you know it’s a trick. So, you’re guessing that the right answer is the same. I’ll say this, if you think they look the same, if you think that, then you should schedule an appointment with your neurologist as soon as possible. There’s something amiss in your circuitry that is making you think they look the same shade.

The explanation of why B looks lighter, which to the normal brain it does, it’s plausible, it’s interesting, it’s that the two squares send exactly the same value of light to us to the eyes and brain, but the brain has an additional piece of information, namely that the square B sits in a shadow. So, that’s telling us that it’s really sending less light out. So the brain wants to make a correction, we’re not cognitively aware of the fact that it wants to do that, but in an effort to tell us the true relationship between A and B, it’s telling us that B is lighter than it appears. It’s in a shadow that makes it darker, but the true color of it is lighter than it appears.

Boy, I thought that explanation sounded exactly right, but then I looked at the diagram again, and I said, “No, I still don’t believe that they’re the same color.” Until I saw what the diagram looked like when I joined squares A and B with a strip of uniform gray, and there’s zero detectable contrast between A, B and the strip anywhere in the diagram. Only on seeing that strip and the lack of contrast was I able to accept even that the two squares were the same shade of gray. I showed this to my wife, I said, “Boy, this is a really humbling experience,” and she says, “Good. We need more like that.”

The reason I show it to you is just to make plausible the idea that you could believe something for sure to be true when, in fact, it’s not true. I believe A is darker than B — I believe that with certainty to be true, but it’s not true. The rich believe that if they had to pay higher taxes that would be painful for them. That seems almost obviously true. It is not true. And here is why it’s not true.

So, you’re a wealthy person and they’ve got a tax proposal, they’re gonna tax your income a little bit more heavily because we need to decarbonize the economy and for anything less than what, $2 trillion a year, we have no hope of doing that. So yeah, we’ve got to raise the money somehow. We’re not gonna get it from the poor people; we’re gonna tax the well-to-do people — they’ve got it. Yeah, we’re a $20 trillion economy and most of it is up there, so we can get it if we can persuade them to part with it.

They don’t want to part with it because they think it will be painful. How do they come to that belief? They think back, the normal way to think about any event, “How’s it gonna affect me?” is try to remember the last time an event like that happened, “How did it affect me?” So when’s the last time my taxes went up, how did you feel then? You can’t think of an event like that if you’re a wealthy person alive today. In World War II, the top tax rate was 92%. By the time I graduated from Georgia Tech in 1966, 70%. Reagan’s first term, 50%. Now 37%, a couple of minuscule increases along the way, too small to notice or even remember.

So, you can’t think about how a higher tax rate would affect you in the usual way, how do you think about it? What you do is you say, “Alright, higher taxes, I know for sure that means I’ll have less money to spend.” Am I worried they’re not gonna let me buy what I need? No, there’s no tax proposal on the table that would have that effect. I’m worried that I won’t be able to get the special extras I want. Well, what are those? Those are the things that are in short supply. Special is just inherently a relative concept. How do you get those things? You have to bid for them, so I’m worried about the tax increase because having less money will make me less effective at bidding for those things. And so, when I think about how I felt about times when I had less money, even the most charmed life, there are examples like that.

So, maybe you had a bad business year, maybe your kid got arrested for something serious, you had to hire a high-profile lawyer to deal with the case, maybe you had a divorce, maybe you had a home fire. Here that’s not unlikely that you would have had a home fire. A health crisis, there are many things that would make you have lower disposable income. Each one of those things generated an intensely bad memory so when you think about them, you think, “Oh, higher taxes, less income, I don’t like that.” But what each of those events has in common is they cause you to have less income, but the other people like you had the same amount of income as always.

And so when you come to think about what it takes to buy the things you want, in New York, everybody wants the penthouse overlooking the park, there aren’t very many of those. You get them by outbidding other people who want them, and if your tax rate goes up, if you were a contender for that apartment and the people like you also experienced an increase in their tax rates, that apartment goes to the exact same bidder as before. And so I think if Mike Bloomberg or Tom Steyer could hire Pixar to make a 10-minute video that they would run during the halftime of the Super Bowl explaining why if you’re wealthy and you’re thinking about the extra revenue you’d need to pay in to enable us to decarbonize the economy, he could, either one of those guys, could pay for the campaign that would convince you that it wouldn’t cost you anything at all that you care about to do that, and that would be a good thing, if we could do that.

I’ll close with something that generated a much stronger reaction in the conversations I’ve been having about the book than I anticipated when I started on the tour. Economists and climate people have long been hostile to the concept, I shouldn’t say all climate people, because that’s not true, to the concept of what they call “conscious consumption.” “Oh, I’ll save the environment, I’ll buy a Prius.” “Oh, I’ll save the environment, I’ll eat meat less often. I’ll save the environment, I’ll bike to work a few times a week instead of driving.” They say that’s just noise. If you do that or if you don’t do that, the climate’s going down the toilet unless we enact robust changes in public policy, a really stiff carbon tax and multi-trillion dollars worth of investment in infrastructure to decarbonize the economy, not just eventually, but quickly.

So, if you’re thinking about buying a Prius to save the world, you’re barking up the wrong tree. I tell people, the only thing that’s gonna matter, I’ve long told people, is to write checks to the people who are gonna vote for the policies that are gonna make a difference in the environmental crisis that we face. But I’ve gone soft on this objection in the last year, working on this project, for two reasons. The least important one is that if you buy a Prius or if you adopt a different diet or if you fly less or whatever you might do in your own effort to impose smaller costs on the planet, you have an effect. It’s a small effect. If you don’t do it, the world will be the same as if you do do it, but the effect you have through your own actions are only a small fraction of the total effect you have, because when you do something other people see you do it and they do it too.

So, I think one vivid example of that is the Prius. There was a Honda Civic hybrid introduced in the same years that the Prius came out. The Civic hybrid looked just like the Civic gas engine version, and no one bought it.

Dan Kammen: We bought it, but…

Robert Frank: Only people who knew the facts and cared about the facts bought it. Most people wanted to engage in virtue signaling. Many of them wanted others to know that they were doing their part, maybe they didn’t care, maybe they liked the odd shape of the Prius, but it was the shape that mattered. Others could see that you had taken that step and this car, by many orders of magnitude, outsold the Honda. It’s one of the clearest case studies of behavioral contagion. And so that’s one reason that conscious consumption matters, because it has a much bigger impact than you imagine it would have because of the indirect effects.

But I think far more important is the second reason that I’ve gone soft on this objection, which is that you aren’t born into the world being a certain kind of person. You become the kind of person you are through what you do. Aristotle was very much focused on this. We are what we repeatedly do. So, if you want to become an honest person, if you want others to think of you as an honest person, how do you do that? You just be honest all the time and you become an honest person, and there’s something different about you that others can tell.

If you take these steps, you become a climate advocate in the process. And if you become one, then you are much more likely to vote for candidates who will enact the robust policy changes that the climate community insists are the only way we’re gonna solve this problem. You’re more likely to write checks to their campaign headquarters. You’re more likely to go out and knock on doors to help get them elected. It really matters if you do these things, because not just of the small effect you have. Yeah, if you buy a Prius or you don’t, the world’s the same just from the impact of that one decision. But it’s a much broader impact than most people are aware. And if you do that, you feel like you’re in the game. It’s a crisis moment as Dan can describe more accurately than I can, and you may not think your little step will matter.

I love this picture of Greta Thunberg — she’s, I think 14, in this slide. She’s 16 or 17 now. But she was just setting out on her Save the Planet crusade. I’m sure she hoped, but didn’t expect, that her crusade would make a big difference. Pleasant surprise, it has made an enormous difference. There are young people all over the planet that may be the leverage that gets actual policy movement on this issue. So, if you’re in the game, that’s an important part of being alive in this particular moment.

And I am delighted to have written all the books I’ve written, there’s some of them. I’m proud of each one. I hoped each one would make a difference. I have to say I maybe didn’t really expect that they would make a difference. Although the first one, I imagined there would be bills — it came out in the winter — I imagined there would be bills winding their way through both houses of Congress by the fall session, adopting my policy recommendations. Of course, that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen with any of the other books I’ve written in the meantime. I’ve never regretted any of those books. I have really deep hopes that this book might make a difference in helping launch a conversation about what we do about the fix we’re in. I have to say I don’t really expect with any high confidence that it will make a difference, but if it doesn’t make a difference, I won’t be sorry to have written it. It will be the next step in trying to make a difference in some other way.

So, it’s bad moment we’re in. Samuel Johnson said, “It’s within the power of any man not to act.” Yes, we can drop out and take no action, but we also have the power to act. Why choose despair when we could actually become part of a solution? And I love the last line of Katherine Wilkinson’s talk to a climate group — she’s a climate advocate in Marin County. She said, “It’s a magnificent moment to be alive in a time that matters so much.” The next years are the make-or-break years. So unless you have something really much more pressing to do, you should get involved in this battle. And I hope as many of you who can will do it, even only through changes in your own behavior. So I probably consumed too much time.

Dan Kammen: No, that’s perfect. Thank you so much. So I’ve got a long list of questions, but I’m gonna try to steer them less to the Milgram experiment and the quotes from George Washington and a variety of fascinating things in the first part, but try to steer a little bit more to the second part. I’m gonna pick up on one that you highlighted well before we get to Greta and her efforts. And that is you mentioned Tom Steyer and the debate over billionaires. And I’m gonna jump right in on something where these lessons on contagion play out. We have some candidates saying that, “I won’t take money from billionaires,” that’s very much the Sanders category. Then we have some billionaires saying, “I should be taxed much more.” Steyer has said it even a little more so than Bloomberg, but they’ve both been in the conversation. If they were to each read your book, so on the one hand, Bernie Sanders, on the one hand, Tom Steyer.

What would you advise each of them as the Secretary of the Treasury for what’s the best thing to do based on what you’ve got here? And I say that because Steyer is very much saying, “My tax rate is too low, people like me should be giving much more.” And Sanders is steering a campaign designed to be the presidency for labor and against this. So just compare what your advice would be if you’re the same person in each of their cabinets?

Robert Frank: Well, Steyer and Bloomberg, I actually have given advice, I don’t know if they’ve heard it. I just sent it out into the ether, maybe somebody passed it along to them, probably not. But my advice to each of them was that the biggest impact they could have in the short run would be to pay the fines of the felons in Florida who won’t be able to vote in 2020 unless their fines are paid. That referendum passed by 60-odd percent to re-grant the franchise to felons in Florida. There is a very large number of them, and a good percentage of them will not be able to vote in 2020 because of the legislature’s move to strip them of that newly granted power until they have paid their back fines. That’s a small investment.

If you’re Sanders and Warren, you need to, as you say, there are many billionaires who are already well aware that it would be better if people like them were taxed more heavily. I think if the country knew that it wouldn’t involve any sacrifice at all on the part of the well-to-do if their tax rates went up, it would be easy to vote for people who would campaign on a platform of doing exactly that. I think the fact that we’re shy about taking things away from people, the status quo has an enormous presumption of validity. We’ve been told again and again that if the tax rates go up, the economy will go to hell in a handbasket. If we can just mount the campaign that would make clear to those people that no such effect would happen at all.

Steve Jobs says, “I want to make a dent in the universe. Except for that, why even be here?” He doesn’t care what the tax rate is, he wants to make something happen. And that’s what most of those people care about. And they would put out the same yeoman effort one way as the next. The wealth tax that Warren has proposed, there are implementation questions, but she’s got smart people advising her and I think that’s a very popular proposal, notwithstanding what the people on Wall Street say about it. So I would say, think that through fully and then if you can get the votes for it, do it.

Dan Kammen: So, one of the features, I’m not sure that any candidate is gonna want to campaign on the fact that they’re gonna invest in convicts, although I can really envision that could be a fun platform.

Robert Frank: They can just write a check, they don’t have to campaign, and they could do it in the dead of night.

Dan Kammen: They could do it in secret. But one version of that might be we have seen a bit of a revolution in terms of the people who are running for office — much more diversity, more women running. One of the things that when each of Steyer and Bloomberg got in, you heard a lot of the negatives about them saying, “Well, I’m glad you’re interested in the issue, but why aren’t you, for example, doing everything you can to find all of these down ticket candidates and really getting involved in being the supporter, as opposed to running yourself?” Is one of the lessons here that there’s a real upside to be in that .1% and being a climate supporter? Is that part of the dynamic that’s made this interesting?

Robert Frank: We’re not talking the top 1% here, we’re talking the top.

Dan Kammen: Fractions of a percent.

Robert Frank: One millionth of 1% in the case of Bloomberg. They asked Bloomberg, “How does it feel, the prospect of two New York billionaires running against one another?” And he said, “Who is the other one?” Went over my head the first time I heard it too. The fact of being a billionaire, a multibillionaire in Bloomberg’s case, $50 or $60 billion gives you enormous leverage to do good if you choose to do good. So, I think if you look at the people in that category who have accepted that they don’t need any more money to spend on themselves, how can I leave the world a better place than how I found it, hats off to them. I think in Bloomberg’s case he’s data driven, he’s at least asking how best to spend the money, so he’s running ads in the right places. He’s not running ads in the places that would benefit his candidacy most. He’s running them in the places that would tip swing states the most and influence the debate the most central way. So yeah, I think they seem to be going about it in a way that I admire. I’m sorry that it’s displaced a couple of very worthy candidates from the debate stage, and it’s hard to feel that that’s the best feature of democracy to celebrate, but there are good sides and bad sides to it.

Dan Kammen: So, one aspect of the story that you’ve written about in some previous books is the degree to which we don’t always make decisions that look like the economic rationalist. We stick with marriages, we do a variety of things, even if the data indicates otherwise. So, go back to some of the previous work you’ve done to highlight, what aspects of the climate issue should we be doing because bottom line, there’s maybe more jobs in clean energy or we’re gonna have less of those externalities, better infrastructure, versus things that we do because we actually just think it’s a good thing? We can’t make that economic rational argument.

Robert Frank: No, that question is exactly pointed toward this, what for me I think was a slow awakening to the potential value of conscious consumption. Even if you don’t think it will have any effect, it feels good to be doing what you feel you ought to be doing. My early work was much of it about how honest people might emerge and prosper even in a world without rules and sanctions and if there’s something about you as an honest person that other people can detect, that differentiates you from people who are more opportunistic. And if you can identify that same spirit of trustworthiness in them, then you can interact selectively and you get the high payoffs that correspond to successful cooperation. The defectors are stuck interacting with themselves.

So, I was very much a celebrant of “This can all happen all by itself.” But I think as I’ve gotten further into the weeds on this, I’ve realized that enforcement is just such a huge element of the picture. The IRS cut its budget, it was Republicans in Congress who voted for these cuts in 2011. Every year, further cuts in the IRS budget, the audit rate is about half what it was in 2011. And now, people are getting to understand that others are cheating and getting away with it. We’ve always been a high-tax compliance nation. We’re not like the Italys and the Greeces that are far down on the list. It’s a huge disadvantage when your citizens don’t pay their taxes, and that’s where we’re headed if we cut back on the enforcement budget further. In fact, the IRS, just from the direct effects of their enforcement reduction, says for every $1 we would spend extra on enforcement, we’d get $4 back. That’s the tip of the iceberg. That doesn’t take any account of what happens when people understand that others are getting away with cheating and how they respond to that.

Dan Kammen: So, one of the issues that Berkeley has been debating hotly is the evolution of what you do about your local policies in the face of national or international effort. And so California, we like to think we built up a pretty good mix of things, and when Obama came in, there was a lot of detailed, thoughtful hand wringing here. Should we hold back and kind of let the feds catch up and then be on that wave, or should we keep sticking it to pollution because of local benefits? And everyone in office is delighted, a sigh of relief, that California didn’t let up when we went from what was a very good regime to a bad regime. So, Under the Influence, in terms of policymaking, is another part of the story. How does one set of good policies egg on a another here?

Robert Frank: Yeah, policy is contagious, one jurisdiction to another. The New York City congestion fee got voted down again and again. The mayor in Ithaca favored it. Politicians in Albany were against it, they say, “What do you mean, only rich people can drive into the city?” The New York congestion fee has now formally been adopted, it will be implemented in due course in the months ahead. And there are five other cities in the U.S. that now have congestion fees moved to the top of their to-do list precisely because of New York having done that. Stockholm did it a few years ago. It was very controversial, nobody thought it would be a good idea. The sponsors of the measure almost bailed out at the last minute. But they thought it was based on sound reasoning and so they did it and they took heat in the process. But within months, they had solid majorities in favor of it. Now, the people who pay the most in terms of congestion fees, a big majority of that group also is in favor of making them permanent. So, it’s very contagious, and full speed ahead in California, I think. Many of you weren’t here, don’t remember what happened in the old days. The UC system was getting gutted, the roads were going to hell.

Dan Kammen: Still being gutted, but we’ll get back to that.

Robert Frank: I thought they were finally getting the budgets back on track. But Brown raised the top tax rate by 50% amid cries that the wealthy would move to Oregon and Nevada. The Stanford study I saw recently estimated that the top 1% migrate out of California at a much lower rate than any other percentile position on the income scale. So, this usual protest that we’re gonna kill the geese that lay the golden eggs has no empirical foundation whatsoever.

Dan Kammen: So, you need to keep saying that because even though many of us think that there’s no empirical foundation, this one still pops up all the time: that we’re gonna lose jobs, we’re gonna lose clean energy projects, we’re gonna lose all these things. So, this one definitely needs a great deal of attention.

But let me turn to Greta, because one of the interesting features of the process that we’ve seen over the last couple of years has been that there’s been a very technical physics community, economics community, analytic debate about climate change in the last couple years that’s been turned on its head a little bit by this youth movement, which has highlighted dramatic changes of behavior and not waiting for adults. It’s not clear we’re giving them much space to do the things they want to do, but this contagious effect among young people is just massively different than certainly the climate change, the IPCC, the technical briefs written by a NRDC kind of worldview. And so, optimistically and pessimistically, maybe start with pessimism. There are some negatives if the youth don’t get a space to express this more than just their personal choices.

Robert Frank: Yeah.

Dan Kammen: What’s the downside of Under the Influence, if we don’t give influence a space to really be decision-makers?

Robert Frank: Well, the young people have influenced one another. I think the rate at which they’ve bought into the claim that we need to do something major and we need to do it quickly, it’s really quite remarkable the extent to which that generation of people is on board with that. We can say in time they will age into being a majority and then it will happen, but we don’t have that time.

Dan Kammen: Clearly that’s there for us.

Robert Frank: So the fact that they’re as intense as they are and willing to gum up the works at personal costs to themselves in order to encourage action on the part of the people who still have their hands on the levers, I think on balance is a good thing. We have a Sunrise Movement in Ithaca. The city council is very frustrated with the Sunrise Movement. They want to add bureaucrats to the city payroll, they want to have, the things they’re lobbying for are not in the considered judgment of the city council the best things to be spending that money on in the next round. But they are in the thick of things, they’re at all the meetings, they’re making a fuss. And I think, I’ve been negotiating for opportunities to speak to several chapters of the Sunrise Movement, and I think it would be good for the Sunrise Movement to think about how to focus their policy demands in a slightly different way than sometimes they do. But no, the energy and the determination to make something happen are indispensable.

Dan Kammen: So, let me do then the full positive side. Youth are changing more quickly in terms of diets and, no question, the debate about air travel is something that really came out of news after, not just Greta doing the sailboats one way and that kind of thing, but there is a huge set of pressures which weren’t there even a couple years ago, even if we knew the numbers. So, radical change or evolving change coming out of Under the Influence. At some level, if all your friends are smokers and you’re not and then you start to smoke or everyone decides they’re going to not only not eat beef, but then they’re gonna question the Impossible Burger because maybe it’s not as clean as doing other things. How much can these sort of dramatic shifts, because certainly the decade, 12-year time horizon that we’re seeing, might work for evolving change when these 15-year-olds get into office. But you can argue that we have made many of the choices. If the infrastructure analogy you put up there doesn’t happen tomorrow.

Robert Frank: I don’t see that as a dichotomous choice. I had the pleasure to listen to Ezra Klein interview Cory Booker a couple of weeks ago. It was just before he dropped out of the presidential race, and Booker, as most of you may know, is a vegan, and the question was: Did he think everybody should be a vegan? And his answer was, No, he didn’t think that. He thought if he urged everybody to be a vegan, he would lose his audience in a heartbeat. It was much much better for him to urge people to think about altering their diets at the margin, eat meat maybe two or three times a week rather than every day. If you urge them to do that, and if 60% of them did that, the reduction in meat consumption would be orders of magnitude greater than if you urge them to become vegans and 2% of the population followed that advice. So if you can encourage people to take a small step, then it’s very much easier to take the next step. So yeah, start in small ways, reach out for something that’s within your grasp to do, knowing full well that unless we have radical change, we’re all cooked. It’s kind of having to hold two contradictory notions in your head at once.

Dan Kammen: So let me go back to earlier, the middle section of the book is this series of case studies. And I mentioned that climate doesn’t really come up in them, but they’re about food and and marriage and sex and all the things that are kind of part of our normal life as opposed to the climate story, which for a long time was seen as an extra add-on. Is part of the contagion to make this a top level thing? I don’t just mean in terms of political campaigns by Steyer, but is there a path to make the climate choices we make as core as eating well, or are we still a long way from that?

Robert Frank: The order of topics in the book isn’t an accident, and I will say that climate doesn’t come up for the first time in the last half of the book. I mentioned the essence of the argument in the prologue and in chapter one, but I think until I feel that enough is on the table for people to have a firm intuitive grasp of how powerful the contagion impulse is and how easy it is to shift its course, can we really get full buy-in on the possibility that, “Hey, we could apply that in these two really big-ticket arenas.” The two big tickets are: Where are we gonna get the money to pay for the Green New Deal? The Green New Deal is like mobilizing for World War II, the sponsors admit that. We did that so we know it’s possible to do that. Where can we get the money to do that? Part of the mission of the book is to show where you get the money. Simple changes in tax policy can make the mansions grow less rapidly, it could make the vehicles actually constrict. We could harvest $2 trillion a year without much difficulty from the revenue stream. And then, the idea that these changes in policy would actually create contagions that would have wholesale effects on the way we use energy and the way we generate it.

Dan Kammen: So, last question before we throw it open, and that is you’re back in the room with, not one of these Democratic candidates, but in the ugly world, in my opinion, where Trump is re-elected. What is a strategy to use contagion that moves the needle at all, because we certainly cannot afford four more years, if under the unfortunate situation of which many people think Trump stays in office? How do you use this to craft a, I don’t even want to call it, a conservative ground, I’ve already called it an irrational ground, but how do you try to influence someone like this?

Robert Frank: The last chapter in the book is devoted to the question of how you can have a more productive conversation with someone on the other side. Those conversations are notoriously unsuccessful. When Al Gore would make an announcement of a new study showing that the climate trajectory was worse than previously thought, the people who didn’t like the idea of climate change became more firmly rooted in their belief that it was a myth, that we didn’t need to worry about it. So really, it’s very difficult to make a connection of any kind with people who are in a different camp from you.

And there’s actually some interesting research on this question, and the common thread in many of the studies is that if you try to explain something to somebody on the other side, that almost always is counterproductive. They dig in, they get defensive, they become resistant to whatever message you’re trying. If you can listen attentively, if you can ask the right question, that’s the one step that has a bigger impact than any other. And I don’t have a good list of exactly the right questions for the climate domain.

But I can give you, I have two, I think, compelling examples from my experience in early debates. One was involved in the debate about the Affordable Care Act, the opponents of it were viscerally outraged by the mandate. They thought the government had no right to make you buy insurance if you didn’t want to. And you could try to explain to people why, if you didn’t have a mandate, the whole insurance pool would collapse. But they wouldn’t listen, you would get nowhere in a hurry with that approach. I just stumbled onto the right question, I was convinced it was effective just by seeing how it played out.

I finally started asking people, “What do you think would happen if the government required home insurers to sell fire insurance at affordable rates to people after their houses had already burned down?” And the question doesn’t spark outrage, it’s a neutral kind of thought question. People would think about it, and it wouldn’t take them very long to respond correctly that if the government did that, fire insurance companies would go bankrupt in short order because nobody would buy fire insurance until after his house had already burned down. That’s exactly the right answer. And then by themselves they would, if you had been talking about the mandate, they would see that the guy with pre-existing conditions is exactly that guy whose house has already burned down. And they’re not wondering anymore why you need a mandate. It can’t work unless you have a mandate, unless you can get everybody in the pool, the insurance pool can’t provide coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. Which they all thought the government should require. So that’s one.

Dan Kammen: So that’s contagion, right?

Robert Frank: I asked people about lucky breaks they’d enjoyed on their paths to the top, successful people. Obama tried to remind business owners that if they’d succeeded, remember the teacher that helped you, remember the roads you shipped your goods through. The business owners got bent out of shape big time when they heard that. “Oh, that’s the ‘You didn’t build that’ speech.'” He was dissing them for not earning their lofty spot in society. Don’t remind people they were lucky, ask them if they can recall times when they were lucky. And they’re not threatened at all by that question, they think of an example, their eyes light up, they want to tell you about it. Telling you about it kindles the memory of a second, then they tell you about that example, and then suddenly, “Why aren’t we investing more in the schools?” they’re asking you. But you can’t push them to that. Ask them. The chapter title is “Ask, Don’t Tell.” And I’m working on the right questions for these other arenas, I don’t have a good laundry list to recite to you.

Dan Kammen: And pay it forward, right?

Robert Frank: Pay it forward, pay it forward.

Dan Kammen: So, let me open it up so we can do some of those questions, and I will get antsy if someone makes their question into a long statement. But let’s just start over here and keep questions and keep them coming.

Audience 1: Thanks so much for your presentation, it’s inspiring and wonderful. I wonder if you’d comment on the potential role of a carbon tax in addressing the climate crisis and its potentially regressive effect.

Dan Kammen: And maybe carbon tax and the social cost of carbon, to kind of broaden this out.

Robert Frank: Yes, I think if we had enacted a stiff carbon tax in 1924 we probably wouldn’t need to do much else besides that. If we enact a stiff carbon tax now and do nothing else, then we’re not gonna solve the problem. I think nonetheless we should enact one. I think it is political malpractice of the very highest order that the people who have enacted them or who have proposed enacting them have not taken the trouble to educate the public on what a revenue neutral carbon tax would be.

A revenue neutral tax is, as you all know, one that collects all the revenue from the people who buy goods with carbon footprints, takes that revenue, and then gives it back to the people who paid it in. And what we know is that worldwide, the top 10% of the income distribution uses 49% of all energy. It’s not that skewed in the U.S., but it’s skewed here, too. Most of the revenue coming in will be from high-income voters, they will pay in the lion’s share of the revenue. Even if you gave it back in equal monthly rebate checks to everybody, just on a head count basis, it would be strongly in favor of middle- and low-income families, since they pay the least in carbon taxes and will be getting back.

But you could make it progressive in the rebate scheme: Don’t give anything back to the people at the top, tell them about the mother of all cognitive illusions and reassure them that they’re still gonna be able to buy what they want, and they’re gonna benefit more than anyone else from cleaning up the air. And so they’re a winner on that score, too. But if you could get 70, 80, 90% of the voters getting more money back than they paid in in a carbon tax, how much of a political genius would you have to be to get people to vote for that? Of course, you have the big oil running campaigns to oppose it, so you’ve got to communicate the message, but that’s the kind of message that Steyer or Bloomberg could explain to people without any difficulty whatsoever.

Dan Kammen: And yet, we’ve been remarkably unsuccessful. There was the Republican effort, there’s been the Democrat effort — these have been remarkably hard to package in something close to a bumper sticker or whatever version.

Robert Frank: I have never recalled any occasion when I wished that my net worth was $50 billion. But on that ground alone, I wish it was, because I think I could persuade everybody in the world that that would be a good idea to do, if I had $50 billion.

Dan Kammen: I like that. Maybe the one reason to do PayPal.

Audience 2: Thank you very much. Mixing some of this work with some of your previous work, I wanted to throw out a wild idea and hear your thought. What would you think of making the very very high marginal tax rate a positional good itself? What I think here it’s, what if 400 people pay a tax rate, 390 people pay a tax rate that is slightly higher so they can show off that they are in the 390 as opposed to the 400 or something like that. How would you react to that?

Dan Kammen: You would color code the tax forms.

Robert Frank: Yeah, I can’t remember who it was, it was somebody that Richard and I know who is from Israel and they used to publish how much tax you paid every year and her father had a bad business year, but he paid the same amount of tax he would have paid in a good business year so people would see that he wasn’t doing well. So yeah, selling position is a sort of, that’s easy pickings, that’s low-hanging fruit. We ought to enable people to buy more position in ways like that.

Dan Kammen: In Thailand of course, they do the reverse, they have the shame index. And so, they publish people’s names who got speeding tickets and didn’t pay on their home taxes and things. There’s an alternate version of this, as well.

Audience 3: In your writing, you parallel the smoking cessation movement and climate change. And how, sort of, the herd mentality helped us solve much of the smoking crisis. But smoking had a critical event. And that was when the Japanese Wives Study showed the impact of secondhand smoke. Americans didn’t respond much when you were just killing yourself, but when you were killing other people, that became a critical event. And so, I’m wondering what is that trigger event in climate change, because some of us would have thought that we’ve had those, and the world just ignored them. Whereas somehow in the smoking world, there was a trigger event that mattered.

Robert Frank: You know, if the Australia fires don’t prove to be a triggering event in Australian politics in the next round, I’m gonna be deeply discouraged by that. If not that as a triggering event, then what? Those fires spewed nine times the amount of CO2 into the air as the California wildfires of 2018, which have been the record culprit up until then. So yeah,  the secondhand smoke trigger actually is bogus. We don’t like regulation in the United States, we don’t like taxation, so I think whenever we do regulate or tax, we reach for John Stuart Mill’s harm principle.

The only legitimate reason for the government to tell you that you can’t do what you want to do is to prevent harm to others. And he must have meant undo harm because you can’t do anything without harming somebody in the real or imagined way, so the secondhand smoke was the trigger that regulators seized on as their rationale for “Here’s why we need to do this. If we don’t do this, people will be harmed in ways that they have no recourse.” You can’t move away from secondhand smoke in most situations. The damage from secondhand smoke is real, as you cite the Japanese study, there have been many other studies since then. But it is minuscule compared to the damage caused by smoking itself, to you in particular, but we say it’s not the government’s job to protect you from harming yourself. That’s a more interesting debate than I think Mill realized.

I think the behavioral literature has opened that premise up to interesting counterarguments in the century or so since. But the idea that we regulate because of secondhand smoke is a total, the harm it causes is minuscule, not only to the harm smokers cause themselves, but the harm they cause by making other people more likely to smoke. So that’s something where the Mill people can say, “Well, they have recourse. It’s not the government’s job to tell you which behaviors to copy and which ones to avoid, that’s your responsibility.”

Okay, I like that sentiment. But what about the parent? Does anybody ever recall hearing a parent say I hope my kid grows up to be a smoker? But most people who smoke wish they hadn’t started. They try to quit, usually unsuccessfully. It’s one of the most addictive and harmful substances in our arsenal. They don’t want their kids to smoke, they try to persuade them not to. My parents both smoked, they tried to persuade me not to smoke, I smoked anyway at age 14 for 2.5 years. If others around you smoke, you smoke. And if you want to say we don’t care about the harm to parents who don’t achieve their goal of raising their kids to be nonsmokers okay, but that’s real harm.

If you want to raise a kid, there’s a lot of grunt work along the way, you’ve got to care about that kid. And if you invest a big slice of your life raising your kid and your kid goes off and damages his health willy nilly, that’s harm to you. Would you want people to be raising kids who didn’t care that much about their kids? I mean the utilitarians, some of them will say, “You pull this lever, you kill your son. You pull this lever, you kill two strangers.” You ought to pull the first lever to kill your son because one person dying is better than two people dying. I would pull the second lever. I’m guessing most people would do that. And if you thought about it, you wouldn’t want to live in a society where the people who raised the kids who populated that society were ones that would pull the lever that killed their kid. You’ve got to care about your kid too much to be willing to do that.

And so, the harm you cause when you smoke is you make other people’s kids more likely to smoke, and that’s real harm, and we ought to care about it. Unless there was some reason not to care about it, which I can’t think of one. The other reason they offered for regulating smoking is that we needed to spare the poor taxpayer who has to pay for the health costs of the smokers. It’s false that smokers die younger, they don’t collect pensions for nearly as long, they die of illnesses that kill them more quickly, they don’t draw big Medicare bills down year after year. Smokers are a net plus to the government budget.

Audience 3: If I go to the supermarket, and I take out a can of beans and eat them, I deprive the rest of the world of those beans and I have to pay $1.50 and nobody I know would call that charge a tax. It’s a charge for the resources I’m consuming and depriving everyone else of. If I use the atmosphere by putting carbon into it, shouldn’t that be called a carbon charge? And I’m not quibbling because Bob, as you said, we don’t like taxes. But the guy who bought that $300,000 Ferrari didn’t think that it was unjust that he had to pay for it.

Robert Frank: Yeah, exactly right, and we have a right-wing congressman in our district and he’s open to the idea of a carbon fee and dividend. He is 100% opposed to a carbon tax. That those two are isomorphic is not of any concern at all to him.

Dan Kammen: It’s the paradox of Tompkins County, is what this is.

Robert Frank: Marketing matters, yes.

Audience 4: Information on the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change and a plethora of seemingly catastrophic news events, as we’ve discussed already, has been available for some time. So, presumably people are discounting the importance of this information, and in an economic sense, discounting the potential benefits of fighting climate change in the future. This could, from a microeconomic point of view, be construed as rational behavior. You’ve talked about fighting this through information, but if information is already available, what recourse do we have?

Robert Frank: I was with you right along the way until you got to the point where you said this can be construed as rational behavior. When you have the information about it’s worse, much worse than you think, and you do nothing, even though there are things that you could do that would not be burdensome to do, that is not comfortably within my conception of rational behavior. I think it is primarily an information problem. The people in the youngest generation of voters are all already there, they understand the gravity of the problem and the need to act quickly to solve it, even if they don’t understand all of the nuances of the policy choices that we face. The group above them is closer to them than to the Boomers, but still not quite there yet. And so I think, any way you can get new information into the system and start conversations by asking questions or getting people to reconsider. So you don’t think climate change is a problem? I don’t think we’re gonna see anybody willing to say publicly that that’s what they believe.

Dan Kammen: Except for you talked about Inhofe in your book and the snowball, and he certainly said, so there are some.

Robert Frank: He said it in 2015, I bet he wouldn’t say it today.

Dan Kammen: I’d like to hope you’re right.

Robert Frank: In two years from now I’d be willing to bet a hefty sum that it would be very difficult to find a public figure wiling to say anything remotely like what he said in 2015, but that’s the conversation. You can’t do it all by yourself, but you can play a meaningful part in starting a conversation. Same-sex marriage was one of the issues I talked about in the chapter that Dan mentioned on cases. In 1989, Andrew Sullivan writes a very persuasive argument that if we permitted it, it would have nothing but beneficial effects on the social structure, there would be no harm, it was very well-argued. Twelve percent of the population thought it was okay to permit people to marry whom they please at that time. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were publicly on record against same-sex marriage when the referendum was fought in 2008, 2009 here in California. Six years later comes Obergefell, the Supreme Court decision everywhere in the country it’s the law of the land now. Now more than 70% of the people say, “Yeah, why should we tell people they can’t marry whom they please.” So, you can get big movement in a short span of time through essentially behavioral contagion.

Audience 5: Thanks very much. You mentioned on several occasions that basically the demographic message is in, that the younger generation is on board. In your studies of, you just mentioned same-sex marriage and other areas where we’ve had this change, did you see a quick tipping point where suddenly there was a windfall of change of opinion of activism or did it come very slowly?

Robert Frank: Great question, and the answer is that it’s always idiosyncratic. [Inaudible] has a great book about the importance of information cascades of various kinds. And a point he makes is that although there were some cranks who every year for many years had predicted that the Soviet Union countries were gonna dissolve this year, it never happened. But then, with no serious pundit predicting it, they all fell within the span of 12 or 18 months. And it was just a matter of it being dangerous to speak out against a regime.

Some people are crazy, they’ll speak out no matter what. Others are more cautious. The obvious equilibrium for a long time was only the nutcase spoke out, he got punished, nobody else spoke out. But what people believed, and what they said publicly, were not the same thing. Something happened to make the next guy in the queue speak out and that made the proportion of people speaking out just high enough to tip the thing, and then bang, like a row of dominoes, down it went.

Other times it takes a long time. The slavery debate played out over a long long time. No young person today could summarize the issues in the slavery debate. They all believe passionately that slavery is wrong. Why do they believe that? Because everybody else believes that. They don’t know what the details of the argument, what kind of pro-side arguments people offered back in the day, because it’s a settled issue to them. But it didn’t get settled quickly, in that case it took a long time.

And the one thing about contagion dynamics is that prediction is very difficult. I did a Twitter thread, I tried to help get the conversation started by putting threads out on Twitter of examples of this sort, and one of the threads I put out a couple of weeks ago was that the trajectory of the impeachment conversation was more uncertain than most pundits seem to think. I’m not gonna say 67 senators are going to vote to acquit Trump. But if you can make a small goal your first step, well I guess the obvious would get the four to vote for additional evidence being admitted into the discussion. Nobody knows what comes next. And if it tips, it’ll tip overnight. “It Was Until It Wasn’t” was the title of the chapter that I summarized a lot of these case studies in.

Dan Kammen: You certainly miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

Robert Frank: Exactly.

Dan Kammen: So, that is a definite start. I want to thank you for coming and welcome you to the Goldman school again, thank you. We’ll have some drinks and thank you all for the great questions. That was perfect.