A Good Walk Spoiled with Malcolm Gladwell | S2/E1: Revisionist History podcast (Transcript)

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A Good Walk Spoiled with Malcolm Gladwell

Season 2 | Episode 1
Length: 35min | Released: June 14, 2017

Malcolm Gladwell: I have a friend who lives in Brentwood, on the west side of Los Angeles between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. He has a little pool house in his backyard and I stay there whenever I come to LA, kind of like Kato Kaelin, if your memory for OJ Simpson esoterica goes back that far. Anyway, my friend's street dead ends on San Vicente Boulevard, one of the central East-West corridors in LA. And on the other side of San Vicente is this absolutely gorgeous golf course; one of the many private country clubs that LA is famous for. If you drive down Wilshire Boulevard into Beverly Hills, 10 minutes East of Brentwood, you go right past the Los Angeles Country Club which costs maybe a quarter of a million dollars just to join, that is if they'll even consider your application. There's Bel Air Country Club just north of UCLA, which might be the most beautiful golf course in the country. Hillcrest, off Pico, Wilshire Country Club in Hancock Park, I could go on. They're everywhereÔøΩ vast, gorgeous, and private.

The one near my friend's house is called Brentwood Country Club and it has a tall, chain link fence around it which goes almost all the way out to the street, leaving just this narrow, rocky dirt track. There's no sidewalk. And since there aren't a lot of places to run in Los Angeles, tons of people run around the Brentwood Country Club on that narrow, dirt track.

And there's one thing that always bothers me every time I run that route. Why do all the runners of West Los Angeles have to squeeze into this narrow, rocky, little track when there's a huge, magnificent park just on the other side of the fence?

My name is Malcolm Gladwell and you're listening to Revisionist History, my podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood.

This episode is about the problem with golf. I hate golf and, hopefully, by the end of this, you'll hate golf too.

I'm sitting here with Di, Di Zock, who is a very successful landscape architect in Santa Monica and we are on the corner of San Vicente and Burlingame and we're looking into the Brentwood Country Club. And the first thing I see is barbed wire.

Di Zock: Looks like a couple of layers of barbed wire.

MG: This looks like aÔøΩ It looks like the Berlin wall.

Di Zock: I don't think they want us to get in there.

MG: What are youÔøΩ What are we seeing? We're seeing thisÔøΩ Let's move a little closer here. What's that stand of trees? Do you know what those are?

DZ: UhÔøΩ That looks like silk oaks in the foreground and then I see a cedrus deodora, quite lovely. Lots of larger trees, which are unusual in Los Angeles because there's so little open space. There's some pinus canariensis, looks like a redwood in there.

MG: I don't think Di Zock has ever played a round of golf in her life. That's exactly why I wanted her opinion. I wanted someone objective to tell me what it would take to turn this place into a park.

DZ: Well, first of all, I would get rid of the two layers of barbed wire.

MG: We, weÔøΩ The whole eastern European feel, eastern German feel, would have to be, uh, corrected.

DZ: I mean, that might be some people's bag, but, umÔøΩ. It's not very welcoming.

MG: Yeah. The typical golf course is 200 acres, give or take. That's a lot of land. You have to landscape it, mow it, drench it in pesticides, keep the sandtraps perfect. I read somewhere that when a fancy golf course rebuilds its bunkers, it typically takes about 389 truckloads of sand. 389! Just to keep everything nice and white and fluffy. But at the same time, because golf involves launching a potentially lethal projectile at great speeds across enormous distances, you have to severely limit the number people on the course at any one time. Typically, a good private course can handle no more than 72 golfers at once, so that's one golfer per 120,833 square feet. Can you imagine if basketball had the same population density as golf? I did the math. If basketball was played according to the geographical requirements of golf, a basketball court would be 30 acres. Picture that. They'd have to play on motorcycles.

Okay, another fact about golf: rich people really, really like it. They're obsessed with it in a way that there just isn't any parallel for ordinary people. Because serious golfers are super anal about their scores, we can actually quantify their obsession. In order to calculate their handicap, basically how well they're playing relative to other people at the country club, they all post their results on a database maintained by the United States Golf Association, so we have a record and it's a gold mine.

Lee Biggerstaff: To be able to calculate your handicap and track it through time, you will log into the system either at your course or on your home computer.

MG: I'm talking to an economist at Miami University named Lee Biggerstaff. He's interested in the habits of top corporate executives. If you have the corner office and a multimillion dollar stock option and a Gulfstream 5, does that make you more or less likely to put in a hard day's work? The USGA database is of serious professional interest to a guy like Biggerstaff.

LB: And you input where you played and what day you played on, and what, what your score was. And, you know, after a certain number of round being played, the USGA will, will indicate what's your handicap is, your level of skill, which allows you to compete against other golfers of different skill level and kind of normalize against that.

MG: You know you always hear that CEOs play a lot of golf? Biggerstaff's insight is that the USGA database allows us to know exactly how much they play. All you need to do is cross reference that list of scores with a list of the CEOs of America's largest companies. So that's what he does. It takes forever, by the way.

LB: It started while I was a PhD student, and so this certainly was a multi-month process, so it's not something that I necessarily want to repeat in the near-term just because it took a lot of collection time there.

MG: How can you not love this? Surely this is why God invented graduate students. Biggerstaff begins with the names of the heads of the top 1500 publicly held companies in the US. 363 of those 1500 turn out to be so obsessed with golf that they enter their scores into the USGA database.

LB: What you're seeing on average is I think 15 rounds a year is kind of the, the average CEO is playing that amount of golf. Uh, but it's a heavily skewed distribution, right, so we have a lot people that are playing very little golf. And then we have a tail where we're picking it up, you know, the top quartile is what we're looking at, which is 22 or more rounds per year.

MG: And if you go to the top 10% of Biggerstaff's sample, the CEOs are playing a round at least 37 times a year. A round of golf is a good 4, 4.5 hours, so if you play 37 times a year, that's more than 160 hours on the course, the equivalent of 5.5 weeks of work. By the way, these are understatements. They don't include the time spent driving to the course, warming up, getting changed, having a drink. Doesn't include the hours spent practicing shots on the putting green or the driving range, or all the rounds you play that you don't enter into the database, like if you're only playing 9 holes or playing a fun round. So the real time is probably way higher.

Biggerstaff then goes on to show that the more golf a CEO plays, the worse his firm does and also that the more golf a CEO plays, the more likely he is to be fired. In other words, this isn't a harmless habit; it's a dangerous habit. Remember the Wall Street investment bank Bear Stearns? They went bankrupt during the mortgage crisis. In July of 2007, right when the crisis was beginning, the CEO of Bear Stearns would often helicopter out from Wall Street on Friday afternoons to his exclusive course in New Jersey to get a round in before sunset. Even when his company was collapsing, he couldn't stop playing golf. Out of President Donald Trump's first 4 months in office, he visited his own golf courses 25 times. One week, he played 3 times. You would think he would be at the office learning how to be president, reading intelligence briefings, dredging the swamp. No, he's golfing. It's an addiction, right? Because the definition of an addiction is a self-destructive habit. Just think if I said to you that an important employee of a major organization made lifestyle choices that caused him to miss enormous amounts of work, harm his performance, and put his own career in jeopardy. You would say,  "Whoa! Check that guy into rehab." That's golf. Crack cocaine for rich, white guys.

LB: The highest in the sample, uh, 146 or 148, uh, rounds recorded in a single year, which, I mean, at, at that point, that's a tremendous amount of time spent on the golf course.

MG: You thought I was engaging in hyperbole didn't you? That I was using the word  "addiction" metaphorically. 148 rounds a year is a round of golf every 3 days.

LB: And that would be if it was kind of uniformly distributed across the year. Uh, its, it's, you know, golf certainly has a season where it's little bit more intense, uh, in terms of the summer versus the winter.

MG: I mean, you, you can't tell me what co-, what co-. What company it is? I want to know what company it is.

LB: Yeah, this, we're justÔøΩ With this data, given it's somewhat sensitive, uh, we're unwilling to, to name out CEOs.

MG: I can't believe he won't tell me. I mean, here we have an activity that is incredibly expensive, that is organized in just about the most extravagant manner possible and at the same time, this expensive habit is incredibly addictive to the point that there's a chief executive out there of a major American corporation who plays an average of 148 rounds of golf a year and is so completely unself-conscious about that fact that he posts all 148 rounds on a public database where it can be analyzed by graduate students.

So what happens to rich, white guys with a dangerous, costly obsession? Do they burn through their life savings paying for their addiction like ordinary addicts do? Please. Give them a little more respect.

Bob Hope: By the way, this is my fifteenth year in television. Imagine thatÔøΩ 15 years of me. It's the longest stomach test in the history of show business.

Richard Zoglin: You could argue, I would say, in the 40s and 50s, there was no one who was more widely popular in America than Bob Hope.

MG: I'm talking to Richard Zoglin, Bob Hope's biographer. I think Bob Hope has been little forgotten in recent years but in his day, he was huge.

RZ: Every late night comedian who does a stand up monologue at the beginning of the show owes a debt to Bob Hope because he kind of invented that thingÔøΩ a standup comedy monologue that sort of took note of what was going on in the world, what was going on in Hollywood, what was going on everywhere and he was just the voice of, of America, I think, for a long time.

MG: Bob Hope is a crucial part of the story of golf in America. Although, I'm warning you, things are going to get a little complicated, which is sort of the point because you don't get to run the world for as long as rich, white guys have without being pretty wily. And some of their best and wiliest work has been on the golf course.

So there's a principle in property tax law called highest and best use, which is that one of the ways you figure out how much to tax a piece of property is to estimate what its best use might be. For example, if I have a one acre plot in the fanciest part of Manhattan that I use to grow vegetables, I can't say to the city,  "That land is worthless. It's just a vegetable garden." No. The city is going to say,  "We're going to value that one acre and tax it as if it had an apartment block on it because that's the best use of land in the fancy parts of Manhattan." Now, if you've got a vast golf course in the middle of Beverly Hills or Brentwood, highest and best use makes you really nervous because plainly, the highest and best use of land in the middle of one of the most expensive and densely populated cities in the world is not a private golf course.

So years ago, in 1960, California's country clubs realized they have to act or they're going to get taxed into oblivion. They get together and they propose an amendment to the state constitution that permanently exempts them from the highest and best use standard. They want their vegetable garden to be taxed as a vegetable garden. If you think about it, this is seriously audacious. Private golf courses are these massive, opulent, gated playgrounds and membership is often restricted. In Los Angeles, in 1960, a lot of these clubs didn't let in Jews. They certainly didn't let in black people except to work in the kitchen. Yet they wanted a constitutional exemption to ordinary property taxes like they were some kind of public amenity. How can they argue this? They don't. Not really. They just bring in Bob Hope, who, in addition to being the most popular entertainer in America, is also an obsessive golfer. Obsessive.

BH: I might as well level with you, I spent so much time in sand traps, they sent me citizenship papers from Saudi Arabia.

MG: Bob Hope once wrote an entire book just devoted to his golf game, called  "Confessions of a Hooker," in which he estimates that he had played on 2000 different golf courses over the course of his life.

RZ: He belonged to the Lakeside Country Club in, in LA near where he lived.

MG: Which is one of the prestigious, very prestigious, till this day, isn't it?

RZ: Yes, I think so, yeah.

MG: The genius of picking Bob Hope as the face of California's country clubs is that his whole persona, his whole act was about being everyman. He's self-deprecating; half his jokes are about how he's not part of the in group even though, of course, there's no one more in than Bob Hope.

BH: Isn't this wonderful all being here in California? I just love it. Look at that sky. It's the only place in the world where you can get four seasons in one day, I want to tell you that. This is divine. We'd better hurry, it'll better be snowing before the third hole, you know. Let's move on, old boy.

MG: So how did the Bob Hope for Golf campaign do in 1960? It wins. The proposition passes and is added to article 13 of the California Constitution, where it remains to this day. In order to win a set of privileges for the very wealthy, in other words, California's country clubs turned to a man who symbolizes the common man. I mean, when does it ever happen that a TV celebrity wins a sweetheart deal for his rich golf buddies by posing as a friend of the common man? If you get my drift.

MG: Ta- take me back, just to, like, totally understand Prop 13, a prop which was passed in1978, and what are the principal stipulations of the proposition?

I'm in a big conference room in the Los Angeles County Municipal Building, one of those beautiful 1930's office buildings that are all over downtown Los Angeles. There are four people on the other side of the table; they're from the LA County Tax Assessor's Office. I'm on my quest to figure out why Brentwood Country Club isn't just a big park that I can go running through and I've decided to start with the people who run the tax system. These are serious folksÔøΩ deliberate, thoughtful. They have promised to help me. You'll have to guess what they really think.

Brian Donnelly: The tax rate is set as 1% of the, of the value as opposed to a variable rate, which it was before.

MG: The man speaking is Brian Donnelly. He's talking about the most famous amendment to the California Constitution: Proposition 13.

BD: The properties only getting reassessed with when there's a transfer or a change of ownership, uh, or if there's new construction. Those are the primary parts of it.

MG: Here's what he's saying: If you own a house, every one or two years, typically, the value of your property is reassessed by the city or county where you live. So, if your house doubles in value, the local government will raise your taxes accordingly. That's the way property taxes work, except in California. Proposition 13 said that, for tax purposes, the value of any piece of property in California is frozen at pre-1978 levels and the only way that property can be reassessed at its real, current value is if the property is sold or, to be more specific, if ownership of more than 50% of the property changes hands. In other words, California has two kinds of taxpayers: the post 1978 people who pay normal property taxes and the people lucky and old enough to be living in the same house they owned in 1978, who pay a tiny fraction of their fair share.

BD: You know, I've got, uh, family members who've owned their house since 1969 and they're payingÔøΩ I think their tax is about $90,000 or something like that. The houses in that neighborhood sell for 600, so it'sÔøΩ So they're paying a lot less. But it's a, it's the, it's the Prop 13 conundrum, which I'm sure you've read about.

MG: Please understand this system is insane. Totally crazy. I mean, just think of all the reasons why someone might deserve a big tax break. I mean, they're sick, they're poor, they have tons of young kids, they've made a big investment in their business. The State of California says,  "No, we think the most deserving group are people whose property hasn't changed hands in 40 years." Okay. Now imagine that you're a private golf club. You did that spectacular bit of jujitsu with Bob Hope in 1960, which means that you don't pay real property taxes. Gift from God number one. Then comes Proposition 13, and you get a second gift from God because Proposition 13 says that those already artificially low property taxes are now frozen forever at 1978 levels so long as your country club does not change hands. And that last part is crucial because, if you have a change in ownership, then you have to pay real property tax like every other long-suffering California taxpayer who hasn't been in one place since 1978.

So the country clubs of Los Angeles all hang by a thread. They continue to exist only so long as the tax system perceives that they have not changed hands. And for years, everyone assumes they haven't changed hands. I mean, Brentwood, LA Country Club, Wilshire, all the major golf clubs were all founded before 1978. But then a neighborhood newspaper called The Los Angeles Garment and Citizen runs an article, January 16, 2010, in which they say,  "Wait a minute. Most private country clubs in Los Angeles have what's called equity ownership; they're owned by their members. When you're admitted, you get a share. When you die or quit, someone else takes your share. So, over time, if enough members die or quit, isn't that a change in ownership?" That question was put to Rick Auerbach, who was then the head of tax assessment for LA County.

BD: Yeah, I think the quote was kind of funny from him. He said something about let's seeÔøΩ  "On most issues, we've haven't heard at least the question asked before," he said. He'd worked in the office 39 years, but this is a new one so.

MG: Auerbach refers the question to the city's lawyers. They put their best and brightest legal minds on it for 6 months and on June 2, 2010, the county's tax court issues a solemn, four-page ruling. They conclude,  "No, country clubs haven't changed hands." If you're keeping track, that's the third straight-up gift from God that LA's private country clubs have gotten in the last 50 years.

I was talking to someone who's a member of Bel Air Country Club and I said,  "What percentage of the members of Bel Air today were members in ‚Äö√Ñ√≤78?" And he said, you know,  "10%." So why isn't that a change of ownership?

BD: Right, if, ifÔøΩ I haven't had a chance to dig through this a whole lot since I got it, you know, out of the file the other day, but if they kind of can get into it, it'sÔøΩ They're saying, if there's no one event that is, that is more than 50% of a transfer, then it's notÔøΩ Each of those little individual slices are not a change of ownership on their own.

MG: Did you find that argument plausible?

BD: Well, it's Prop 13. We are implementers of the law.

MG: Right. You don't have opinions, no.

BD: WellÔøΩ

MG: I could swear, as I looked across the table at Donnelly and his cohorts, that they were twitching, like they desperately wanted to say something but had to bite their tongue.

You know what it's like, uh, you know that famous, um, paradox, I forgot, with the ship? Where youÔøΩ The question is if you changeÔøΩ If you have a ship and you changeÔøΩ it's, like, some ancient Greek thingÔøΩ and you change one board at a time, is, at the end of the day, is the ship different? That's what this is.

The thing I can't remember is the ship of Theseus, the famous thought experiment described by the Greek philosopher Plutarch roughly 2000 years ago. Plutarch says imagine Theseus is sailing on a ship and, one by one, he replaces every one of the original planks that make up that ship with a new plank until every single piece of the ship is new. The question is, when Theseus reaches shore, is he sailing on the same ship as he was when he left or a new ship? One view says it's a new ship. This is called the Mereological Theory of Identity. The identity of something is the sum of its component parts; change the parts, you change the thing. On the other side of the argument is something called Spatiotemporal Continuity Theory, which says that an object can maintain its identity so long as the change is gradual and the form or shape of the object is preserved to the changes of its component materials. I think you can see where I'm going with this.

The city's lawyers take the second view: so long as a country club replaces its rich, white guys gradually, and so long as each new rich, white guy preserves the form and shape of the rich, white guy he is replacing, then the private golf clubs of today must have the same existential status as the private golf courses of 1978. Collections of rich, white guys, from the standpoint of the LA County property tax system, possess spatiotemporal continuity.

At this point, I realized I was in way over my head. Tax assessors were not going to be enough. I needed an actual philosopher. So I called Marc Cohen of the University of Washington to get to the bottom of the question of whether large groups of rich, white people possess ontological permanence.

Marc Cohen: Here's an argument that favors the spatiotemporal continuity theory. The idea that what makes the, the ship persist through time is one and the same, is that it moves smoothly through space-time. One plank is removed and thrown overboard and a replacement plank is installed, taken from the cargo the ship has on board. So when it arrives, it doesn't have a single part that is identical to any of the parts it started out with and so there's no point at which you can say,  "Aha! Now we have a new ship. A different, a numerically different ship." So thatÔøΩ If you have that sort of argument in mind, you think,  "Okay, the spatiotemporal continuity criterion is the correct one. Forget about requiring that all the parts are the same."

MG: But Cohen is not finished. As a philosopher, his job is to consider all the scenarios raised by the ship of Theseus conundrum. Like the museum counter example.

MC: The museum example goes like this: Suppose the ship is, is in a museum of ancient ships and a, a gang of crooks is trying to steal this ancient ship and it realizes it can't just haul it out in one piece; they would easily be spotted. So they come up with a clever scheme.

MG: They sneak in every night and steal the ship one board at a time, one plank a day, so the museum doesn't realize what's going on.

MC: By the time they're finished, on day number N, they have all N parts of the ship removed. Now they reassemble them and put it on the black market. They're selling Theseus' ancient ship for a pretty price and they've left a replica behind in the museum. I contend that, in this case, when you describe it in this way, it seems as if Theseus' ship has been stolen piecemeal from the museum.

MG: Cohen's point is that there's no simple answer to the ship of Theseus problem. You can go around and around and around; that's why it's a puzzle. But do you see what the lawyers at the LA Board of Equalization did? They just waltzed into a philosophical conundrum that has bedeviled some of the best minds in the world for 2000 years and declare victory and say,  "Oh, it's definitely option one, spatiotemporal continuity."

MC: The problem, as it stands, is irresolvable and you only come to a conclusion that makes any sense to you if you place it in a, in a context in which there is something sort of extra metaphysical, something pragmatic, that helpsÔøΩ That tilts you in one direction or the other.

MG: So what's the pragmatic, extra, metaphysical consideration here? It's that Los Angeles ranks near the bottom of all major metropolitan areas in the United States in terms of public parks. There's Griffith Park, off in the northeastern corner the city, which only a fraction of the city can even get to, and that there's basically nothing except these massive golf courses which are both close to the general public and subsidized by the general public. Do you want to know the size of that subsidy? I asked around. A guy I know knows a guy who's a member of the LA Country Club. That guy's back of the envelope calculation was that the club's land was worth about $6 billion. But that was a couple years ago. Then I heard from another guy who said that they now think it's with 9 Billion. 9 Billion! Under normal circumstances, the property taxes on that much land would come to about $90 million a year. Do you know what LA Country Club actually paid after you add up the Bob Hope exemption and spatiotemporal continuity ruling? $200,000, give or take.

All right, let's do the math together. They should be paying 90 million; in fact, they're only paying $200,000 in property taxes. 90 million minus $200,000 is $89,800,000. That's how much the taxpayers of Los Angeles subsidize one of the swankiest country clubs in the world every year.

Well, and I wanted to bring up something else that comes to mind here, which is that the spatiotemporal argument, taken out of the philosophical context, strikes me as beingÔøΩ Can sometimes be really troubling. For example, it's a veryÔøΩ I mean, I think there's something fundamentally intuitive about it and I don't mean that necessarily in a good way. That, you know, that we get the fact that we call the Hudson River the Hudson River even though the Hudson River is, at every second, changing. It's like, you know, the water's not the same. Boats go down it, you know, it neverÔøΩ It never look the same way twice ever, but we continue to call it the Hudson River. But it strikes me that, in, in a political context, this kind of thinking can be used to perpetuate inequality and injustice.

MC: Interesting.

MG: For example, what is theÔøΩ What is an aristocracy but a political formulation of the spatiotemporal continuity principle, right?

MC: It is something like that.

MG: And it's, it's troubling in precisely that way because they're saying circumstances can change and the holders of the privilege can change, the, the father can die and the son can inherit the peerage, but the peerage remains intact. It has this quality that

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