The Blog

Barry Schwartz on Incentives, Education and Making Wise Choices

It's important to understand that looking for the best is a self-defeating, misery-making strategy; that we should, in general, be looking for good enough, not the best.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Rob Kall Interviewed TED speaker Barry Schwartz on the Rob Kall Bottom-Up Radio show, WNJC 1360, February 25, 2009. The interview was transcribed by Jay Farrington and Carla Gilby, and edited by Jay Farrington.
Listen to a recording of the radio interview.

Barry Schwartz is the Darwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College.

Kall: I have with me Barry Schwartz, who recently gave an incredible talk at the TED Conference. If you haven't seen TED, it's at, where you're going to find amazing lectures and presentations. I found out about you from Twitter. You were all over Twitter, I tell you.

Schwartz: Yes, this was my introduction to Twitter. I'm a little bit behind the curve when it comes to technology.

Kall: Well, what you're not behind the curve on is a lot of wisdom. What you had to say really touched a lot of people. You spoke about wisdom, you spoke about the loss of wisdom, and you talked about it in terms of where we are currently. I was thinking last night, watching Bobby Jindal talk; did you hear what he had to say?

Schwartz: I only heard a few minutes of what he had to say. I mostly listened to the guy right before him.

Kall: Well, Jindal gave an example of a sheriff who was really frustrated because there were these rules that were keeping boats from going out that weren't insured, to rescue people. And he argued that more government and lots of government is bad because it creates dumb rules. It reminded me of your 'Mike's Lemonade Story.' Your 'Mike's Lemonade Story' is basically about a father... Should I tell it or do you want to tell it real briefly? Go ahead, tell it, tell it.

Schwartz: It's a true story, it happened in Detroit. A dad was at a baseball game with his 11-year-old, and the 11-year-old wanted some lemonade. His dad went to the concession stand and the only lemonade they had was Mike's Hard Lemonade. The dad didn't realize that meant it had alcohol in it, so he brought it back to their seats. A security guard saw a kid drinking this alcoholic beverage and called the police, who called an ambulance. The kid was rushed to the ER. It was ascertained that he was okay, he didn't have any alcohol in his blood, and they were all set to let him go. But then the Child Welfare Services intervened and the child was put in a foster home for several days, then allowed to go home only if his father left the house and checked into a hotel. So they were protecting the child from potential abuse by the parent. After a couple weeks, this all got fixed and the family was reunited.

At every step in the process, people said the same thing: I hate to do this, but I have to follow procedure. And you can see why, the reason these procedures were put in place, is that, no doubt in the past, welfare workers have been negligent, neglectful, and what have you. So these rigid procedures were designed to protect against disaster. And my point was that they work to protect against disaster, but, at the same time, they assure mediocrity. Mediocrity is the best you'll get when you expect people to adhere to a rigid set of rules. It is certainly true that when you rely on rules, usually promulgated by government agencies, terrible things will sometimes happen, preposterous things will sometimes happen. But the idea that you can simply eliminate these rules and trust that people will routinely want to do the right thing and know how to do the right thing is just self-deception. It takes a certain kind of person to want to do the right thing and know what that is, and part of the point of my talk is that our reliance on rules and, even worse, on incentives, has virtually guaranteed that we won't find such people.

Kall: Your talk was about incentives on Wall Street in particular, I think.

Schwartz: But it's true in general, I think. If you start giving teachers bonuses if their students exceed some score on these standardized tests, teachers will find a way to teach to the test. Test scores will go up, but education won't.

Kall: And with Wall Street, the incentives led people to take us down a disastrous economic path.

Schwartz: That's true, but people have short memories. These same incentives were hailed 15 years ago as a revolution in the running of our financial industry. You were creating incentives that made the compensation of the CEO compatible with the success of the company, right? Small salaries and huge bonuses meant that you wouldn't get fat, lazy CEO's with three-martini lunches, because the better the company did, the better they would do. Isn't that fabulous? You could just turn them loose, knowing that what's in their interest is also in our interest and we'll all end up better off. So this was a revolution in compensation. A smart revolution, engineered by brilliant economists, and, indeed, look what it got us.

So the reaction to the current crisis is, 'Well, the problem is that we had dumb incentives; let's get smarter ones.' Well, we thought we had done that. The point I tried to make in the talk is that there is no set of incentives that you can create that is smart enough to substitute for people wanting to do the right thing because it's the right thing. By relying on incentives the way we have, we essentially create an addiction to incentives on the part of people so that they'll only act in a particular way if it's in their interest to do that. The moral dimension of your work as a banker, or teacher, or pretty much anything else simply gets eroded. That was the point of my talk.

Kall: And you talked about the alternative being to celebrate moral exemplars.

Schwartz: Correct. Instead of being embarrassed by our naiveté when it comes to great lawyers, either in fiction or in history, as motivating us to want to become lawyers, we should celebrate these people, acknowledge that we want to be lawyers because of the good that lawyers do; we want to be doctors because of the good that doctors do; and so on, and so forth. We should acknowledge openly and celebrate that, and the celebration of these kinds of people should be built into the training that we get in law, medicine, education, or anything else. But my sense - I teach at an institution that has very smart students - and my sense is that you're really regarded as naive to have this kind of noble aspiration; you don't understand how the world works; you've got to put a shell on; you've got to become cynical. Under those conditions, you won't get anyone to do anything unless you make it worth their while financially. So I think we're headed exactly down the wrong road. I think that president Obama knows that, although I sometimes get a little nervous that he, too, thinks that incentives are this sort of magic tool to get us exactly what we want and need from our professionals.

Kall: Well, he did say last night that we've gone down the path seeking short term profits instead of long term prosperity. I like that quote from him.

Schwartz: Yes, indeed. And the question is: What is it that induces us to pursue long term prosperity? What is it that gets us to care about the well being of future generations? It ain't incentives.

Kall: So what is it, then? How do we systematize it, because there are so many failures in the educational system? You've talked about how education should be done by example and how teachers should be the moral exemplars; yet we've got an awful lot of... what is it? Half of the students don't make it through high school, half of the students who start college don't make it through college.

Schwartz: True, the education system is a mess, but you're not going to make it better by giving teachers bonuses if their students exceed some score on standardized tests. This is the magic bullet quick fix, and all it is, is cosmetic surgery. The underlying problem remains and, as Rahm Emanuel said, you should never let a crisis go to waste.

Well, we certainly have a crisis now, and I think that means we ought to think much more boldly about what it will take to fix the educational system. You want teachers who love to teach, and you want to enable them to work under conditions where it's possible for them to teach well. You certainly need to pay them enough, and we don't pay teachers enough. They need to make enough money that they can live a decent life and raise a family and all that stuff. You don't want their compensation to be a disincentive, but I don't think that you get better teachers by offering compensation above and beyond what's enough to live a decent life. What's more important is creating working conditions that allow them to do their jobs well.

Kall: Well, what about the seniority system? Right now, in many school districts, if you've been there longer, you get paid the most.

Schwartz: And, in addition, you get to pick what school you teach at. The sad truth, since I'm a supporter of organized labor in general, the sad truth is that I think teachers unions have really been bad actors in the development of the teaching profession over the last couple of generations. There's very little evidence that there's interest in anything other than the welfare of the teachers, and that creates constraints on what supervisors can do that make it almost impossible to transform the system. I think one reason why charter schools are working, when they are, and why they're even created, is that it's a way around union contracts, so that the principal of the charter school has the freedom to do stuff that a principal in the regular school that's part of the regular system couldn't do.

Kall: Now, you're part of the tenure system, right?

Schwartz: I am.

Kall: So what do you see as the solution? No Child Left Behind? I can't imagine you behind that.

Schwartz: No, I'm certainly not. You can have standards without having standardization. It takes more time, it takes more effort, it takes confidence in the judgment in the people who are doing the evaluations. We seem reluctant to trust in the judgment of teachers and evaluators and the consequence, again, like the lemonade story, is that we settle for mediocrity by ensuring against catastrophe. So, there is not a quick fix to this and it's too bad that there's not a quick fix, but I think, again, this crisis may have given us the opportunity to think big about what teacher training should be like and what the teachers' work environment should be.

Kall: So, have you been thinking big?

Schwartz: I always think big. The nice thing about being a tenured college professor is that you can have all these thoughts and nobody actually acts on them.

Kall: So what do you see as the opportunity here within this crisis for changing things-in any area, not just teaching. Where has this taken you?

Schwartz: Well, there is about to be a massive expenditure of resources in lots of different areas of current American life and Obama has certainly, and I think correctly, made a big deal about the importance of improving education. So, the thing to do is re-vision what a classroom is like, what kind of people you want to hire as teachers, what kind of conditions you want to give them to work under-and in that way, transform the system.

There was an article that Malcolm Gladwell had in The New Yorker several weeks ago, in which he made the case, and I think he's right, that no one knows how to predict who's going to be a good teacher. You can't look at credentials, they're just not predictive. You can't look at college grades. Some people are fabulous and some people aren't and you don't know until they start teaching. So what that would imply is that you have a system where lots of teachers get hired and most of them aren't retained, because you essentially learn, by watching them, who's good and who isn't.

The system we have is exactly the opposite. You know, you get tenure after two years. There's virtually no evidence about how good you are, nor do you have much of an opportunity to learn how to be good, so all this effort is put into the initial screening. Then, once you get the job, it takes dynamite to get you out of it.

Kall: My son is 19; he's a freshman in college. He has already learned, because he took some college courses while he was in high school, not to take a course without checking out

Schwartz: Well, that's... The quality of teaching is critical, but I'm not sure that is the way to find out about qualities, other than how entertaining the course is. Again, the easy way to evaluate is a bunch of bubbles on a form, but it probably doesn't tell you much about the actual quality of the teaching.

Kall: So there's really not anything in place within the teaching system to do a proper evaluation of a teacher, then?

Schwartz: Here's an interesting thing: Swarthmore is a school where the emphasis is on teaching. They expect us to do our own research, but the emphasis is squarely on teaching. We have no institutionalized course evaluations. If you want to give them out, you can, each professor, and they're for you, they're not published anywhere. On the other hand, when people come up for promotion, they solicit 40 or 50 letters from students - open-ended, discursive accounts of the strengths and weaknesses of the teacher.

Kall: The administration does that?

Schwartz: That's correct. That's the way you get tenure, that's the way you get promoted to full professor. So, instead of relying on the easy evaluation, the so-called objective evaluation, of checking boxes on rating forms, they want students to write narratives about what your strengths and weaknesses were, and those letters are scrutinized. I've done this now many times when junior colleagues of mine have been up for promotion - those letters are scrutinized to try to develop a sense of what each individual's strengths and weaknesses are. So there are standards, very high standards, but there is not standardization. We can afford to do that, it's a small school, we have a lot of money, it's time consuming, it's effortful, we can afford it, but I think going for what's easy is never going to get you the excellence that we aspire to.

I think the same thing is true in other professions. There is a slow sort of revolution building in medical training, because you develop these people now with unbelievable technical skills who don't know how to treat patients. They know how to treat organ systems. How do you teach smart people to be doctors?

There are several places now where you get assigned a patient right at the start of your medical training - there's always someone looking over your shoulder, but you see that patient all year long. You get involved with that patient, the patient's life circumstances, the patient's family, and so on, so you know how to be a doctor to people rather than a doctor to organ systems.

Students shadow doctors. You'll spend six weeks shadowing a family doctor, six weeks shadowing an obstetrician, six weeks shadowing an oncologist, looking over their shoulders as they deal with the problems that real-life people present, rather than just organ systems. The aim in all of this is not to increase people's technical skill, which presumably is high, it's to increase people's wisdom in dealing with people who live complicated lives that are full of constraints and problems. The presumption is that this will dramatically improve the quality of medical care.

So we can do that. We have a sense of the ways in which training has gone off the rails and how we can put it back on the rails. It takes will to make these changes and probably it takes some financial support, since changes of these kinds are never easy to implement, so greasing the wheels a little bit with... lubricating the process with some money might encourage more places to change what they do.

Kall: So you're talking about investing in teaching wisdom.

Schwartz: Well, I'm talking about investing in reshaping systems so that people can learn wisdom. I don't think you can give lectures in a classroom on how to be wise. You can make sure people who are coming into professions are mentored by wise, experienced practitioners and have experiences that enable them to start to develop wisdom themselves. The hope is that with enough such experience and enough examples and enough mentoring, you'll end up with, not just technically skilled practitioners, but wise ones.

Kall: So this is really where you're talking about taking this new look at the way that education is done. I've read a bit of John Paul Gatto, who won an award for Best Teacher in New York at one point, and then he just got disgusted with the system. He describes how schools today are really based on a model that was designed to create good factory workers and obedient soldiers.

[John Taylor Gatto was named New York State Teacher of the Year after being named New York City Teacher of the Year on three occasions; he is the author of several books, including State Controlled Consciousness. YouTube video /
Web article: THE PUBLIC SCHOOL NIGHTMARE: Why fix a system designed to destroy individual thought? / Web page]

Kall (cont.): There is so much room for making schools better now. We certainly are seeing, with 50% drop out rates in high school and college, that they're not working for so many people.

Schwartz: They're not even working for the people who finish high school and go to college. They're working better, but, again, we're kind of settling for mediocrity rather than aspiring to excellence. I think that's right, it was designed to create an obedient and diligent work force and those days are gone - we need something else. Again, now's the time to really think hard about how the system would be redesigned to get that something else, and then put resources into doing it. That's what I think.

Kall: Well, it's a great opportunity right now. I call this show the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show because I really believe that we're in the middle of a bottom-up revolution, where the culture is moving from a top-down model to a bottom-up model. Obama talks about bottom up almost every day and, if you look to the web, so many of the successful ventures there have been based on bottom-up approaches, whether it's Google or Amazon or Linux. I wonder if you have any thoughts about that, the idea that people... there's kind of the crowd sourcing, the cooperation and sharing of ideas when, even at your school, you get 40 different letters from people that help make that decision whether somebody's retained. Where does that fit into wisdom, the wisdom of the crowds, the wisdom of learning?

Schwartz: Well, look, I think that this bottom-up... the removal of barriers to entry is a good thing, making it easier for people that have no particular status to make their views known and participate in the conversation is a good thing. But it has its problems, because the one unintended consequence of this great democratization, I think, is the development of a kind of contempt for expertise. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, period. And your task now, as you surf the web, trying to find stuff out, is to sort out opinions based on some knowledge, and opinions based on what side of the bed people woke up on.

It's not easy to figure out whose opinions to take seriously. So, when it was very hierarchical and top-down, input to the public conversation was too narrow; but now that we've solved that problem, we've created a different one. And I see this - students turn in papers and, God knows they've had a lot of training on how to do a research paper, but the web has become a source, not just academic journals and books, the web is a source, but they are completely helpless in separating out sources that actually have some sort of training and expertise behind them from sources that are O'Reilly. They don't know, and eventually, you do this long enough, you get burned citing somebody who doesn't know anything and you become more discerning, but on the way to that discernment, there are going to be a lot of mistakes made. So, I think it is a mixed blessing, the bottom-up transformation of society.

Kall: Well, the way it seems to be working on the web, and what books like The Wisdom of the Crowd suggest, is that people kind of vote on what is good and what is bad, and what is valuable...

: That's true, but not everything should be decided by majority rule.

Kall: That's a good point.

Schwartz: We can't have a vote on 'how much is three times six;' sometimes there are right answers to questions and the majority may have the wrong answer.

Kall: That's true. Let me get back to this question of Jindal. Jindal and the whole right wing, the GOP theory really seems to be coming down to this, there are two things that the GOP stands for: one is reducing or eliminating taxes, and the other is shrinking or getting rid of government.

Schwartz: So those are two versions of the same thing. If you reduce taxes, de facto you shrink government.

Kall: Exactly, like Grover Norquist said, shrinking government by cutting the taxes enough so you could drown it in a bathtub.

Schwartz: Exactly, yes, you starve government out. That's exactly right. That seems to be the model. Let me just say, there's an economist, or at least there's someone who writes about economics, name Jeffrey Madrick [], who's recently published a book that is a passionate and extremely well-argued defense of big government. We simply have forgotten all the good stuff that government does - we just take it for granted. And what we notice is the lemonade story. We don't notice that we can buy a container of milk and be reasonably confident that we're not going to get food poisoning if we drink it; that the prescription drugs that we buy, the pills in the bottle are what they're supposed to be and they meet production standards.

Kall: And the example of where things broke down when that didn't happen is this American Peanut Company, which was not evaluated and regulated.

Schwartz: And one reason why it wasn't is that they starved the FDA. There are ten times as many products now as there were, and they have the same size work force, so they can't do the job. They don't have the wherewithal to do the job. So, 99% of the time, all this stuff works. You take government away and bad stuff starts to happen. You take government regulation away from the banks, bad stuff starts to happen. We have just taken it for granted... all the positive contributions that government makes, we have just taken for granted. As if, if you starve government, those things won't continue to happen anyway.

Kall: Now, two questions. One is: What's the book by Jeffrey Madrick?

Schwartz: I don't remember the name of it, but M-A-D-R-I-C-K. I'm quite sure that Google or Amazon will be happy to tell you.

Kall: And the other question is: How do you answer someone like Bobby Jindal saying, "Well, government's bad because there was a problem here with these boats?" How would you answer that?

Schwartz: I think it's ludicrous. I don't think it warrants an answer, it's not a serious complaint. Good institutions occasionally produce mishaps. Running a society is complicated business and sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes, regulations that protect people also prevent people from doing the right thing. That was part of what the lemonade story was about. But on balance, it seems to me, the fact that occasionally there's a rule that makes it so you can't do what's obviously the right thing to do doesn't mean that these rules in general have that effect. So I just don't think that this is a serious position that's worth arguing about and to make these claims in the face of complete financial collapse that has occurred as a consequence of getting rid of the rules... I mean, I don't understand how people can look at themselves in the mirror. It wasn't government regulation that screwed up the financial system. It was, you know, "wild west capitalism," anything goes.

Kall: So what do you think; they're lining up Jindal (Republican Governor, Louisiana) as a potential presidential candidate in 2012. His characterization of government -where do you think that defines him?

Schwartz: I think a lot is going to depend on whether the various dramatic efforts that are now being made have measurable effect before the next presidential election; I think I f they do, the Republican Party should fold up its tent and go away. They will get sooo trounced in the next presidential election, that there's no point in showing up, because it's quite clear that they have been nothing but obstructionists - so far, and the only proposal they have is to do exactly more of what was done for eight years in the Bush Administration. So barring a complete failure of Obama's efforts to get the economy working again, I can't understand who would vote for a Republican.

Kall: Yet, at the same time, your story about Mike's (Hard) Lemonade suggests that too much blind dependence on regulation can be problematic too.

Swartz: I think that's right; I think that there are no rules and there are no incentives that can substitute for people having good character. Good character is essential, it needs to be nurtured, but there is nothing about sort of turning people loose, as free market self-interested wealth maximizers is going to do anything to nurture good character.

Kall: As the publisher of which sees about half a million unique visitors a month, I find that we have to remind people fairly regularly to be civil. Because in the discussions and the comments, people can get pretty mad. Sometimes you just have to remind them and then - they remember (chuckles).

Schwartz: Well, here too, I think that what's happened is that the 24/7 cable news cycle with almost all of the shows now, opinion shows, rather than news shows, has just created a set of models where being uncivil is what gets viewers. There are people on both the left and the right, although in my experience more on the right than on the left, where the point is to be as nasty as possible.

: Oh I can assure you that on the Left there is plenty of nastiness too.

: Oh, I know; I'm sure there is; the folks on the right tend to have more, have better ratings, (laughter) but it's just gratuitous nastiness. It's caricaturing the positions of your opponents because the point is to win and to disgrace your opponent rather than to get some clarity, or understanding, or anything. So these are the most, sort of cynical excuses for serious inquiry, and they become the model. The standard is how fast can you insult somebody. Somebody says something you don't like and right away you go nuclear. There is nothing going on that encourages civility right now in modern America--that I can see.

Kall: Well, maybe that's something else that will be changed as we go through these crisis times where we have such opportunities for making change.

Schwartz: I hope so. You know, Bush missed a terrific opportunity after 9/11, by not asking much of us. And so we've now got another crisis that's quite a different crisis, and I hope that Obama does not make the same mistake. I hope that he demands things of Americans, sacrifices of various kinds of Americans, that get us sort of re-engaged with the fabric of our institutions and our social lives and get us to stop thinking of ourselves as free agents.

Kall: Have you seen that put on the table yet? I don't think I have, I mean he's talking about tough times, but I don't think I've seen him do it either. You're right, there was a lot of talk about how Bush missed an opportunity, but I wonder, there is a great opportunity now, and has Obama really asked us to do anything yet?

Swartz: Not yet, but he's only been in office a month, and I think that what he needs to do, and he probably thinks he needs to do, is restore some confidence that there will be a tomorrow and then once that's done, he can start making demands of us about how we're going to act.

: Maybe some of us need to be telling him, "Obama, you need to be asking more of us. Maybe we need to speak up and say that that's something we're willing to do, rather than this libertarian kind of approach of "leave us alone and it'll take care of itself."

Schwartz: Maybe. I certainly think that if we don't start hearing stuff like that in the not-too-distant future, then it ought to bubble up from the bottom, that it's ok to ask us to do stuff. I'm inclined to think that, it's a month and he's got all his fingers in different dikes and when things settle down a little bit, maybe he will start asking us to be citizens.

Kall: You said you do research. What kind of research do you do?

Schwartz: Well, I do research on how people make decisions and whether the decisions people make give them the satisfaction that they expect and aspire to. I wrote a book a few years ago, called the Paradox of Choice, that's about the paradoxical result that when people have too many options, instead of being liberated, they become paralyzed. They can't pull the trigger; they walk out with nothing. If they walk out with something, they're convinced they picked the wrong thing. Giving people all this freedom of choice, as it turns out, is a burden not just a blessing, so I wrote a book about that.

Kall: So what is the answer?

Schwartz: Well, the answer is, you're not going to pass legislation that says supermarkets can only carry 30 kinds of cereal, so the answer is, in the world of consumer goods, we have to figure out ways to limit the options that we consider ourselves, because society is not going to do it for us.

In other areas of life, like say, Medicare Part D, the government can at least avoid adding to the burden. In Medicare Part D, there were 50, 60, 70, 80 different drug plans for senior citizens to choose among, and it created mass confusion, mass panic and mass dissatisfaction with a government hand out.

Kall: That's interesting. So what I'm hearing... In my exploration of bottom up, there are all these different possibilities that happen and what ends up happening is a small percentage of them get paid attention to and emerge as the "chosen ones."

Schwartz: Uh-huh.

Kall: But I've also concluded that when that happens, it takes leaders, and again, 5 to 20% of the population are the people who make the choices, that are the influencers, who end up making those decisions that lead to fewer choices or to the more apparent choices, shall I say, because on the web, things kind of sink or swim. Am I making sense?

Schwartz: Sure, and I think that that's a good thing. I think if it weren't for the existence of these people you are calling the leaders, the shapers of options that the rest of us get to choose among, we would all be completely bewildered and be unable to get ourselves out of bed in the morning.

: This is kind of like what, oh you just mentioned his name - he wrote "The Tipping Point."

Schwartz: Gladwell, Malcom Gladwell

: Yeah, Malcom Gladwell; talked about the tipping point, and he talked about leaders too, and then there's that Piretto's Law, or the "Power Law," that's that "80/20 Law" and that kind of plays into this then, would you say?

Schwartz: Oh absolutely, but again I think that regarding this as a problem that there are some opinion leaders who set the table for the rest of us, really misunderstands that it's the solution to the problem, not the problem.

Kall: What do you mean? You just lost me there.

Schwartz: Well, having opinion leaders who set the table, so that not everything is on it, is for the rest of us the solution to the problem of having too many options. We get to see six or seven options, not six or seven thousand, and that's what saves us.

Kall: But the rub is in how those leaders make those decisions, which choices to present.

Schwartz: It's true, that's a problem, but that's a better problem to have than not having anybody do the filtering for you.

Kall: I'll tell you where I've been frustrated with Obama and his economic approaches is he does not seem to have really gotten into the full sense of what it means to take a bottom up approach; he's still really using a top down approach with handing over billions and billions of dollars for a few decision makers to sort out where the money goes, and it just seems to me that there ought to be better ways that those choices can be done. And then you've got your paradox of choice concept there...

: And also a problem that he is facing is that timing matters and you're not going to get the infusion of assets into the economy fast, bottom up. To the extent that the experts and I'm certainly not one, agree on anything, they seem to agree that whatever you're going to do you've got to do it soon.

As confidence erodes, the problems just get worse and it feeds on itself, so you need to turn the ocean liner around as soon as possible and that probably means putting massive resources into the hands of a small number of people and the best you can do then is look over their shoulders and make sure they are not buying antique trash cans for their offices, that they're actually using the money in a way that will make things better for everybody.

Kall: Well, they killed any expenditures that look beyond a year, so maybe what they need t do is another plan that looks out two, three or four years.

: I'm sure that's coming; I think were getting this stimulus in stages. No one says the current one is enough. Everybody seems to think were going to need at least another go round of roughly this magnitude. That is a problem and I think that rather than hit us over the head with a huge price tag all at once, we're going to get it in stages, and that's probably not a bad thing. I don't think that's an effort to deceive us, I think it's really that you use the evidence of the first pass of what seems to be working and what doesn't to shape what the second pass is going to look like.

Kall: And also to kind of shake the legislators into reality, because they sure didn't deal with it on the first round of that 700 billion under Bush, and they got a little bit better at it and put some accountability into it, but with all the prognosticators suggesting that things are going to get a lot worse, it's probably a good idea to have a wait and see and then take a real deep breath, (demonstrates) and then, (laughs) go after it another time...

Schwartz: Well, I think that's right and everyone was sort of frustrated that Geitner's plan was too vague and it wasn't focused; it seemed like there were lot of different things that they were going to do, but it may well be that that's the right way to be proceeding, frustrating as it is not to know exactly what the plan is. And are we going to nationalize some banks or aren't we? And what does it mean to nationalize exactly and once you've nationalized it, what do you do to unnationalize it? They are not answering those questions until they have to. I think.

Kall: I like the idea of nationalization; the way the Scandinavians have done it, where they take a company and nationalize it, clean it up, get rid of the toxic part of it and then break it up and then sell it and privatize it again makes sense to me not just for banks but we've got a number of different industries where the diversity has disappeared.

And one in particular for me is radio and the media. Look at what happened to the Tribune, the way it was acquired and it got so big, the whole process of acquiring it created such debt that it basically destroyed it, or it looks that way. And the same thing's happened with clear channel radio, with twelve hundred stations where they merged and merged so that you've got I think in Philadelphia here, where you and I are, there are half a dozen clear channel stations and we should go back to that rule of one station owned per metro area, but how do you get rid of the current situation? How? Nationalize it and then break it up and sell it.

Schwartz: Well, we can once again thank the surge of deregulation for all of this. I agree with you completely that this monopolistic control of the media is a disaster. It used to be - prevented, regulated out, but now these companies can do whatever the hell they want and so it's going to take a very heavy hand to reassert some kind of control and produce diversity in the media. I am more concerned with the demise of newspapers than I am with radio and I think that what makes that problem so bad is I don't know that anyone knows any more how to make money publishing a newspaper.

A while back you had these conglomerates buying up newspapers; that certainly didn't help, but I don't think - you know, even the New York Times can't figure out how to make money.

Kall: Well, I'll tell you; I recently watched the documentary, Sick Around the World. It characterizes how universal healthcare is provided in England, Germany, Taiwan, Japan and Sweden. In just about all of them, profits are not allowed and they look at healthcare as something that's essential for all citizens.

Well, I believe that journalism is essential for democracy; maybe not newspapers, but certainly journalism and just as in the past there has been funding for artists, millions and millions for artists; maybe what needs to happen is they need to come up with a way to fund the journalists who can do their work, feed it out to the millions of blogs and media sites and aggregation sites are developing and maybe that's another area where the model's got to change big time

Schwartz: Maybe. The thing that makes it more challenging than with healthcare is that a significant part of the media's role in maintaining a democratic society is to be critical of the government, and so having the government be the supporter of media raises complications...

Kall: Absolutely.

Schwartz: ...that the government being the provider of medical care does not. So, if you're going to fund it that way, publically, you need also to make sure that there are all kinds of barriers between the funding source and the work that the journalists do so that the journalists can remain independent.

Kall: Absolutely. Of course, we do have those lobbyists from the healthcare industry that have caused similar problems in health care.

Schwartz: No question about it. It's a built in conflict of interest waiting to happen...

Kall: Absolutely.

Schwartz: ...when it comes to journalism, so that's why everyone is hoping for something else, for some other way to keep these newspapers alive, or some form of journalism.

Kall: Speaking of the web and all the blogs and what have you, and your book, Paradox of Choice, how does that reconcile? The web has exploded, where there are, I think, a hundred million blogs, something like that, just huge numbers.

Schwartz: Well, I think the problem is that the more of these blogs there are, the more people will end up gravitating to the web-based sources that also have a presence off the web. When there are millions of sites that are offering news and opinion, you're more likely to go to than when there are only a dozen such sites, because you don't know how to choose among the millions of sites, so you choose what you recognize.

Kall: Now, this is where I see the bottom-up process playing a role, where web sites like digg and reddit help people choose because things are recommended by a lot of people. It does have that liability you just described, but that's one way around the paradox of choice, is to embrace the help of the crowd, really.

Schwartz: Well, look, it's possible that these things will shake themselves out in a bottom-up way and we'll all come to know who to trust and where to go for the information that we want, that may... This is so dynamic a process at the moment that I think only a fool would predict with any confidence what it's going to look like in another five years, so I'm open to the possibility that you're right and the magic of bottom-up collective wisdom will assert itself. But I don't think there's any guarantee, so I still need my New York Times.

Kall: Well, one thing - the more I look at bottom up, the more I've come to believe that, even in bottom up, you need to have leadership, and you've got to have people who take on that role. Somebody can be a bottom-up leader and be very inclusive and facilitate participation, but you still have to have both, so it makes that difference.

One more thing I want to cover with you. I'm on a positive psychology listserv. One of the things that I've gotten into over the years is optimal functioning and I've written a lot and lectured a lot about the anatomy of positive experience, and I've been involved, and I even gave a presentation on at the Positive Psychology Summit Meeting that Marty Seldman puts on, and on that listserv, when I posted a link to TED for your talk, somebody said, "Ah, but he didn't talk about some of his other stuff that is more positive psychology oriented." I'm just curious what that might have been?

: I don't know. I mean, I actually teach in a positive psychology master's program, and I teach basically about how to make good decisions and how to derive satisfaction from good decisions. That's more about my Paradox of Choice book, but the stuff on wisdom is really all about what authentic happiness is, what kind of person you need to be, to be happy when all is said and done at the end of your life. I don't know what whoever said that wants.

Kall: Can you talk just a little bit about how wisdom applies to happiness?

Schwartz: Well, sure. We have good evidence that the two most important determinants of people's well being are meaningful work and close relations to other people. What I believe is the case, is that meaningful work and good social relations both depend on wisdom. You need to be wise in order to figure out how to do your work in a way that serves the people you're working with and for, and you need to be wise in order to know how to manage as a spouse, as a friend, as a parent. There is no formula, there's a right thing to do, often, but it's going to depend on the particular person and the particular situation you're in, and that's what wisdom is about. People who are not wise will not have meaningful work and will not have successful relations with others. Seldman is big about all these strengths that contribute to happiness; my view is that there is one strength that is the master, the dominant strength that all the others depend on, and it's wisdom. If the TED talk were a little bit longer, I would have ended it with a little riff on how being wise not only benefits the people you interact with, but it also benefits you, because it makes for better work and better relations with others, but I didn't have enough time.

Kall: And what else would you have said if you had a little more time?

Schwartz: Well, you're going to have to read my book when I write it.

: Is it in the works?

Schwartz: It is in the works. I should say that all of the stuff on wisdom is the product of collaboration with a colleague of mine named Ken Sharp, who also teaches at Swarthmore. We've been teaching a course on wisdom together for several years and we are now writing a book.

Kall: That sounds like an amazing book. What do you teach at the master's program on positive psychology?

Schwartz: I'm part of... one of the courses that the students take consists of four of us, each coming in for a weekend. I don't know what we have in common, and I don't remember what it's called, so I teach stuff on decision making and happiness. Essentially, I teach the stuff that's in this book of mine, The Paradox of Choice.

Kall: And in terms of happiness, what is your word on decision making?

Schwartz: Well, first of all, it's important to understand that looking for the best is a self-defeating, misery-making strategy; that we should, in general, be looking for good enough, not the best. Good enough could mean you have low standards or very high standards, but it means that you don't need to look at every possibility before you choose; you just need to look at possibilities until you find one that meets your standards. We call people that do this 'satisficers' and the evidence is that people who are satisficers are much more satisfied with the decisions they make than people who are out to find the best. If there's a single lesson that I have to offer people when it comes to making themselves more satisfied with their lives, it is that they know that good enough is almost always good enough.

: How do you get there? How do you get them to...

Schwartz: Well, that... I don't know the answer to that, because people who aren't already doing this obviously feel the need to find the best. What I tell people is that nobody is looking for the best in every area of life. Each of us accepts good enough sometimes, so that means that each of us knows how to do it. The trick is just to do that in more areas of life - a good enough job, a good enough restaurant, a good enough place to go on vacation, a good enough place to go to college. We know how to do it when we're buying postage stamps, where you're not looking for the best postage stamp. Well, we just need to use that decision-making strategy more and give up on this phantom quest for the best.

Kall: And is this a big chunk of your book that you're working on?

Schwartz: No, no, this is a big chunk of the book on The Paradox of Choice.

Kall: And the new book, will it be a chapter or something like that?

: No, the new book is just about what wisdom is, why we need it, how you get it, and what threatens it.

Kall: OK. So, do you have a web site?

Schwartz: Yes. I don't know what the URL is, but you can find it by going to the Swarthmore College web site, search for my name and you'll get my web site.

Kall: Well, this has been really wonderful. I really enjoyed this. Thank you.

This story was cross-posted on thanks to Jay Farrington for taking transcription to the next level, adding links that flesh out the conversation..