Episode 17 Rivalry

Margarine vs. butter: one of history's hottest rivalries? (Photo: Flickr)

We kick-off the third season of Tell Me Something I Don’t Know with a show on competition of all kinds: athletic, sexual, geopolitical, and the little-known battle between butter and margarine that landed in the Supreme Court. Our panelists are:

Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author, who didn’t quite fit-in with sports teams.

Bridget Gainer, Cook County commissioner, who took a sibling rivalry well into college.

Scott Turow, lawyer and author of Testimony, who faced-down another best-selling author in the courtroom.

Our real-time fact-checker is WBEZ’s Tricia Bobeda, co-host of the Nerdette podcast.

  • Frederik Zeuthen Gørtz

    Steve Levitt said that the Russian economy collapsed after the Russian Revolution, but it is a bit more complicated than that. Specifically, Russia went through a multi-year civil war, right after the First World War, with multiple foreign interventions including by the UK and US which is why the economy was so fundamentally challenged. The Russian Civil War was one of the most brutal and deadly civil wars of the modern era with millions of dead on both sides. The USSR functioned under what was called War Communism which amounted to forced requisitions by the government due to the incredible strain put on the state by the war. Using those years as an example of why communism didn’t work out doesn’t make any sense. The circumstances of the time are highly unique and a time of crisis.

  • thejonesyman

    I very much enjoyed the episode, but was surprised by the explicit language. I will now use headphones as I regularly listen with young children around. If there was a warning, I would have greatly appreciated it. Thanks! Keep up the good work, I love the format!

  • Stephanie Solywoda

    I listened to this episode as a freakonomics subscriber, and concluded with ‘tell me something I do know’! I want to go further than Frederick Gortz and say that the show missed an important opportunity to role-model fact checking and academic humility. Steve Levitt is factually wrong, and if he taught his students this he was correct to doubt it: the Russian Revolution did not take place in 1913, but in 1917–in this centenary year we all know it! He goes on to discuss the significant drop in productivity between 1913 and 1921, which is true. But it’s all the more interesting and exciting that the serious collapse of money and the price mechanism only happened after 1917, and thus over 4 years, not 8. Any nuanced study would take into account the economic decline that began before the revolution due to WWI (1914) and what pressures the unrelenting imperatives the civil war placed on the nascent Bolshevik economy after WWI, to help explain the extreme numbers and understand what caused and cured this humanitarian catastrophe that saw widespread death through famine as a result of the collapse. It actually upset me that the fact-checker did not offer a quick remedy to this slip– clearly Levitt just mispoke as to the date of the Revoltion. As a Russian Historian I am often asked about this interesting time by economists and interested parties who are fascinated that communism was so very bad, so extremely successful at bringing about collapse. Without a careful examination though– the late imperial Russian economy was hardly a well functioning efficient capitalist market, the idoleological motives behind bolshevik’s economic decisions are not clear cut– it is all to easy to exaggerate the meaning of this case study. It’s disheartening that a serious event with such mortal costs inflicted on a pathetic population can be reduced to a punchline on a show created by an intellectually responsible franchise.