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ADAM DAVIDSON: Hey John.
JOHN HODGMAN: Oh hey Adam.
ADAM: Hey so um. Explain to me what your status is with Delta Airlines.
JOHN: Oh. Uh, I am a Delta Diamond Medallion status.
ADAM: That is very impressive. Because I have spent a not insignificant amount of the last several years craving and finally achieving Delta Platinum Medallion status.
JOHN: Oh, you're Platinum?
ADAM: Which as you know all too well, is one very big level below Diamond.
JOHN: Yeah, I don't even know why I'm talking to you right now, goodbye.
ADAM: From Gimlet Media, this is Surprisingly Awesome. I’m Adam Davidson, and our co-host Adam McKay will be back soon, but this week we have a very special guest host. A man who is a friend of both the Adams: Mr. John Hodgman. Thanks for doing the show, John.
JOHN: It's my pleasure. And I'm glad to break up the monopoly Adams have had over this show for so long.
ADAM: We should say, I'm sure you need no introduction, but you host the phenomenal Judge John Hodgman. That is a great podcast.
JOHN: Thank you very much.
ADAM: You have been a regular on the Daily Show. In those famous ads, I'm a Mac, I'm a PC, you were the PC!
JOHN: I was, and in my heart still am. If anyone at Apple is listening, I'm in wardrobe and ready to go back to work.
ADAM: So, you and I were talking about hey, what should we do, what's a topic that we could do for Surprisingly Awesome, and remarkably quickly you and I realized that we are both obsessed with this topic of frequent flyer programs.
JOHN: Yes. And not just the programs themselves, but the imaginary status levels that the airlines confer upon people who travel quite a lot for work or for chasing status level.
ADAM: So, I think you and I have the same question that is implicit in everything we're saying. Which is, are you and I suckers? Are we being played by these airlines dangling their imaginary medallions in front of us?
JOHN: I don't think we actually do have the same question, if the question is are we suckers, I know the answer, yes. Question answered. I profoundly believe that I've been manipulated into playing this abstract video game and the real question for me is why do I still do it, even though I know I'm being played? Do you truly believe that by chasing an imaginary medallion of status that you are making a rational decision that accrues benefit to you?
ADAM: Alright John, maybe you think we’re morons. Maybe you can just dismiss it. And I want to disagree with you so strongly. It is central to how I see the world. In fact, I think most people who study economics for a living believe on some level, believe that human beings are much of the time, most of the time, quite rational. But i will agree with you that frequent flyer miles really challenges that belief. And my fear is that frequent flyer miles and my own and many other people’s unhealthy obsession with this bizarre arbitrary symbol of status might just prove that we’re not all that rational. That you might be right. That we are a bunch of morons.
JOHN: Of course.
ADAM: So let’s get down to the evidence in the trial of the century. Are human beings rational or irrational? Here's exhibit A.
DAVID PHILLIPS: Many people call me the pudding guy.
ADAM: They call you the pudding guy.
DAVID: I figured out a way to use chocolate pudding to travel the world.
JOHN: Alright, you have my attention.
ADAM: This is Dave Phillips. When he's not being called the pudding guy, he's an engineer at the University of California.
JOHN: So this story happened about 17 years ago. And Dave Phillips saw that Healthy Choice, they were having a promotion. Buy any of their products, send in a barcode, and you get 100 miles frequent flyer miles. One barcode, certificate for 100 miles on one of four airlines, you could choose.
ADAM: So he went out and bought one of every Healthy Choice product he could find. He bought chicken teriyaki dinner, bean and ham soup.
DAVID: In my quest I realize, so some of these products are less expensive than others, and I'm an engineer and I'm trying to figure out what's the sweet spot for this promotion? And I went to another store that was one of these grocery outlet type stores. And I saw a display, little display case with individual cups of chocolate pudding. Like trial size pudding cups, also by Healthy Choice. Each one had its own barcode.
JOHN: Each cup?
DAVID: Each cup. 25 cents for a cup of pudding. Had its own barcode, you get 100 frequent flyer miles. I grabbed the entire display and the pudding and threw it all in the box…
ADAM: And is your heart pounding? Is this like woah? This is big.
DAVID: Yeah, this is embarrassing but I was actually pretty excited. I'm doing the little calculation in my head and I'm realizing wow, this is a trip to Europe for $100 worth of pudding.
ADAM: The second he sees those puddings, the game changes completely. He buys all the pudding in the store.
JOHN: And when you go to the cashier…
DAVID: At that first one I didn't really have a good answer. But I developed one as I moved on from store to store.
JOHN: And so let's just do a little role play. I'm a cashier at grocery outlet. Hmm, that's a lot of pudding sir, why are you buying so much?
DAVID: Well I have to preface this and remind you, this was 1999. So let's go through it again. Now you can ask me.
JOHN: Why, is there some Mad About You reference you're going to drop or something? Seinfeld reference? Alright, here we go, let me get back into 1999.
ADAM: You're using a very 21st century accent, you know they talked differently.
JOHN: That's right. What's the deal with all the pudding in your cart?
JOHN: That's—and I hate to use this adjective in a pudding-related discussion—smooth.
DAVID: So I live in Davis. I happened to have my mother-in-law with us that week who lives in Fresno, that's about 200 miles away. I loaded up my mother-in-law in the minivan. And we hit every grocery outlet store between Davis and Fresno.
ADAM: And what's your mother-in-law saying throughout all this?
DAVID: She's a very meek elderly lady who didn't know what to make of it but she played along.
JOHN: Well why was she even along for the ride? She's taking up valuable pudding space.
DAVID: I needed some help with the carts so she actually did help me. Under cover of darkness I would unload the pudding into the garage.
ADAM: Because you didn't want your neighbors to see it, or your wife?
DAVID: Yeah, I thought it was weird, yeah. Yeah, I think, you know…
JOHN: that was a good thought you had.
DAVID: Yeah then we would, we had to get the barcodes off the pudding, so it's this process of peeling the sticky label off of the pudding and collecting all of those.
JOHN: Did you make your mother-in-law do that too?
DAVID: I think everybody had a try at it, and the kids kind of cooperated for a couple days and their fingers started hurting.
JOHN: Elder abuse and child labor, why not?
DAVID: So that's where I had a problem.
ADAM: Wait, you had your kids do this until their hands were hurting?
DAVID: I mean it was two nights. I got pretty fast at doing it but I realized there was a deadline for sending in all of these bar codes and I realized I'm probably not going to make it with just me doing it. I ended up calling some local food banks to see if any of them could take the pudding and after a few calls I actually found someone with a good sense of humor at a local Salvation Army who said sure. Well, there was a little bit of a catch, I tell him. I have all this pudding and you're free to use it, I'm happy to donate it to you, but when you're done I'd like to get the barcodes back.
JOHN: You got the charitable organization to give you free labor.
ADAM: Even worse, the volunteers who said you know what honey, this weekend I'd really like to help the homeless.
JOHN: That's right. I want to do something good for my community
ADAM: Oh, well I got a better idea.There's this engineer at University of California who really wants to go to Paris.
JOHN: You'll have carpal tunnel at the end, but at least a guy gets to go to Paris.
DAVID: You make it sound so bad. It was funny at the time.
JOHN: No, oh trust me, it's funny now too. It's fantastic!
JOHN: So in the end, Dave bought 12,150 cups of chocolate pudding. And if you have a calculator nearby, you know that that translates to 1.2 million miles. And he traveled for free on the miles for the next decade. And if you have a calculator nearby, you know that means ten years.
ADAM: So give, what were some of the best trips you took, how many trips do you think you took with this?
DAVID: Geez, dozens of trips. We did family trips. We did one trip to Mexico where it was seven of us in our family all went to Mexico on frequent flyer miles. My wife and I flew to Mauritius off the coast of Africa. Um, I, you know, I flew colleagues around the world just for silly little adventures. It really was an amazing sort of life-changing event in many ways.
JOHN: And where did you fly your mother-in-law?
DAVID: My mother-in-law, I think she got New England…
JOHN: Sir, I'm from New England, that's no present.
DAVID: She does not like flying.
JOHN: Just give me a quick, if you had to ballpark it, if you had to ballpark the amount of time, hours, man hours that you personally invested.
DAVID: It was easily over 100 hours.
JOHN: So less than 3 weeks worth of a full-time job?
JOHN: And the money?
DAVID: And the money was initially a little over $3000.
JOHN: And why do you say initially? Did you invest more?
DAVID: There was actually a kind of afterthought to all of this. I figured since I did donate all the pudding to the Salvation Army, I claimed all of that as a charitable donation.
JOHN: And how did that go with the IRS? How much did you claim? All 3000?
ADAM: Dave is now a legend in the frequent flyer community. And I guess, John, it's worth pointing out, there is such a thing called the frequent flyer community. They go to conferences and he just goes by the pudding guy. That's on his nametag. And people stare at him in wonder and envy.
JOHN: He's got status now. He earned a Diamond Medallion of his own making.
ADAM: I love how that story starts out. He is a total sucker. Healthy Choice had him just where they wanted him. They were sitting in some office saying how do we get people to eat more of our frozen dinners, oh let's give away some little miles… But then, he turns it around, he finds the pudding. And Healthy Choice became the sucker.
JOHN: So that's the plot twist. Healthy Choice didn't see Davey Pudding Hoarder coming. But here's the thing, it's not just Healthy Choice. We're all suckers. Right, because he got a tax rebate for it, the American taxpayers paid for his unhealthy and I would say irrational obsession with showing up Healthy Choice.
ADAM: But from an economics standpoint, there is no question: this guy was wildly rational. Fully rational, to see pudding that you can buy for 25 cents and get 100 miles, which were valued at the time around $2. That's just a pile of money sitting there in pudding form.
JOHN: I'm just gonna interrupt you to say that under your technical definition of rational, a man with a garage full of pudding is a rational being. Explain that to me.
ADAM: From my technical definition of rational, every human being who walked by that pudding and didn’t buy a garage full of it? They are being irrational. That is the mystery.
JOHN: I have a piece of counter-evidence that suggests we are, in fact, irrational in these decisions. I have a story about a person who behaved completely irrationally. And I’m speaking, of course, of myself.
JOHN: Exhibit B.
ADAM: Really, why?
JOHN: I was platinum medallion because of all of the travel that I have been doing for this TV show that I had been on, and going on toward the end of last year I saw on my scoreboard that is the app for this airline that I was 7,000 medallion qualifying miles away from diamond and I knew that I had to get there by the end of the year. And I knew that I would need to fly back and forth across the country in first class. I had commitments here and the holidays, and I really only had like, I could maybe go and do a single overnight in LA, but realistically I would have to fly across the country and come back. And I would have to pay for that trip too. Like and that would have to be a first class ticket and that was going to be $3000 and I wasn't even getting 12,000 pudding cups out of it. I was going to get an imaginary medallion.
ADAM: A diamond medallion I just want to say. Like it’s imaginary diamond, and an imaginary…
JOHN: An imaginary diamond medallion, and my finger hovered over the trackpad of my computer. I could have just bought it. It was like, are you ready to complete this purchase?
JOHN: Well, I thought about what it would be like, to be on the plane. I thought about saying goodbye to my son that morning. Because it was very traumatic for my family. So I imagined looking him in the eyes and saying well, I gotta go fly to Los Angeles, I won't be here when you get home from school. And he would be like, I understand you have to go for work, and I'd be like well, not this time. Not this time, no. I have to fly across the country to get an imaginary medallion. But you understand son, you're a gamer. You know what leveling up is all about.
ADAM: Let me show you this screen, you see how the bar is almost all the way to this other place?
JOHN: Right, I got to go eat this power dot that's going to turn me into the big Pac-Man that's going to allow me to eat the ghosts of my own self-hatred for one year. And then I imagine myself on the plane and what it would feel like to get up that morning and leave and go sit on the plane for no other reason... And spend all of that money, that good money, to chase an imaginary medallion. Like would I feel good about myself to fly across the country and then land at LAX and what, have a couple hours to kill, go over to the In-N-Out at the airport, have a Double Double Animal Style, watch the big planes land for an hour, go back go through the Delta super special first class entrance, go up their silver elevator to their private security line, get back on the plane, fly back… Maybe watch Mad Max Fury Road a couple of times, drink a lot of free whiskey? And I realized it would probably be the best day of my life.
ADAM: Alright, so what happened?
JOHN: A kind of miracle happened. I couldn't quite bring myself to press the button and buy the ticket, I decided I was gonna sleep on it. And in the morning, I was going through my email and I found an email that I'd almost forgotten about which was a request from a public radio show in Portland, Oregon, Live Wire hosted by Luke Burbank, saying could I come out in a week to be a guest on the show because their previous guest had dropped out. And immediately I saw my chance, and I said I will come out if you fly me on this specific flight. And they said first class? And I said yes, and they said well we don't have a lot of budget for this, and I said I'm hanging up now, and they said okay. I bullied them into it.
ADAM: So wait, you think that story explains that you were irrational? That was incredibly rational. You sat there, you truly had a period of wrestling with the benefits of this elite status, comparing it to $3000, comparing it to other things you value in your life, and then you realized there was a way to change the cost benefit ratio by making Luke Burbank take money out of his wallet and give it to you to fly you first class. You were being completely rational.
JOHN: And you know what I did when I got on that radio show? In front of a live studio audience to be interviewed by Luke? I just talked about my medallion status. I rubbed it in their faces. I said I'm only here so that I could get Diamond Medallion!
ADAM: Coming up, after the break, we meet the evil genius who helped invent frequent flyer programs.
NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Hey Adam… it's Nazanin.
ADAM: Hey Nazanin. What do you want? We're about to go to break…
NAZANIN: I wanted to give people a heads up that I'm going to be reading some of your ads for a while. Not all the ads, just some of the ads.
ADAM: Fine with me. Take it away...
ADAM: This is Surprisingly Awesome, I’m Adam Davidson, and this week we are joined by John Hodgman.
JOHN: Delta Diamond Medallion status holder John Hodgman is my full title, thank you very much.
ADAM: Oh man, I am so jealous. And we are trying to decide if our obsession with frequent flyer miles is rational—or a huge waste of time.
JOHN: More than a waste of time! These programs pull families apart. It empties out bank accounts. It makes you do things that you feel ashamed of later.
ADAM: To get an answer to what are these things, these frequent flyer mile programs, we had to go to the source. We had to understand the history of them. And so Kalila Holt, our fabulous producer, found one of the guys who helped invent them.
ADAM: So bring me back, you’re the CFO of, what was American at the time, was it the largest?
BOB CRANDALL: Heavens no! Listen, American was in big trouble! it was the sixth largest airline in 1978, we hadn’t made any money in a long time. Its market share in the US was less than 10 percent.
ADAM: This is Bob Crandall. He was the CFO of American Airlines back then. Later he became its long-time CEO. And John, you and I are the same age, I don't think we really remember this, but before 1978, it’s sort of crazy, but the airline industry was completely controlled by government officials. They decided what routes airlines could fly, they decided how much the airlines could charge.
JOHN: It wasn’t a free market in any way. And it's hard to imagine now, but even harder to imagine what it must have been like in 1978, when all of a sudden, with very little notice, the government deregulated. And they said airlines, fly wherever you want, charge whatever you want, and they had to create a whole new business model.
ADAM: Is this too strong, I mean I was saying it almost feels like the fall of the Soviet Union or something, that you’re going from this centrally controlled economy, to a more wild, free market economy. Did it feel like that?
BOB: I don’t know if I’d characterize it in political terms but it was a very profound change.
ADAM: But it felt huge.
BOB: Not only did it feel huge, it was huge.
ADAM: Like you’re in a different business the next day.
BOB: A totally different business. It was clear that what we now had was a much more aggressive, much wider ranging business, and there were lots of airlines. So we said well you know, why should anybody choose us rather than the other guy, every time he or she flies? We want them to choose us every time they fly. How do you do that? So we hit on the idea of awarding people a prize, an accumulating prize, and what’s the prize people want? And every piece of market research that we did then or have done since is that people like travel better than any other award. And of course we’re in the travel business so we therefore stumbled upon the idea of frequent flyer miles, and the most brilliant thing we did was use the reservation system to keep track of it. So you didn’t have stick coupons in a book, we kept track of it for you.
ADAM: So at first you’re like we want to give people a little prize, maybe it’ll be a toaster, maybe they’ll get a set of World Book encyclopedias, and then you realized what people want is travel. And we happen to know a lot about travel.
BOB: That’s exactly right.
ADAM: Do you remember where, what was going on at the time that was comparable to airline miles?
BOB: S&H green stamps.
ADAM: What are S&H, I’m too young…
BOB: Back in the day, there were S&H green stamps. Grocery stores used them, it was primarily a grocery store product as I remember. Because grocery stores were trying to do the same thing. We had some conversations with one of them, said if we really make this thing work, if this works, maybe we’ll replace green stamps.
ADAM: They did replace green stamps. American Airlines started their frequent flyer mile program, AAdvantage. A week later, United Airlines started one. Then soon Delta and TWA. Southwest Airlines actually held out for a while because they said eh, it's just a marketing gimmick, but eventually when people stopped flying on their planes, they said okay, we'll start one too. By 1985 Diner’s Club becomes the first credit card to be part of an airline loyalty program.
JOHN: And of course, it all ends up exactly as Bob Crandall thought it would. There is now like this shadow economy, built on miles and points and awards, that exists alongside our regular one of dollars and euros and yen.
ADAM: Now when i use my credit—and I hope you don’t hang up the phone when I tell you this—my Delta credit card… I, you know, I go grocery shopping and I think about the miles I’m gonna get.
BOB: That’s right. And that’s what we want you to do. That was the whole idea.
ADAM: We talked to one economist who has made it her life's career to study these programs. And she said they work great for the airlines. That it has been proven over and over that when people join one of these “loyalty programs” they do, indeed, become a lot more loyal to that airline.
JOHN: But what are we as consumers getting out of it after all these hours of collecting pudding? How can I maximize the profitability, so I can believe that I'm actually making my own decisions and not just being manipulated by a company?
ADAM: Exactly. That is exactly what I wanted to do. ‘Cause I had in my head, there's some secret. There's some something, and if we do enough reporting, we will find out how to maximize frequent flyer programs. You wanna hear the secret?
JOHN: Yeah. I do. What is the secret?
ADAM: Alright, here's the secret: there’s no one secret. There are a million secrets and most of them are not really secrets, they’re just annoying details that each airline has about their particular program that can change whenever they feel like it. Like you know that thing about fare codes?
JOHN: Yeah, like fare code A, and then P or G and D. And like, it can't just be ABCDEF, right, it has to be random letters from the alphabet to keep you confused. And they all have different rules about how many bonus miles you get depending on the code and everything else. Ugh.
ADAM: Yeah, to truly understand frequent flyer programs, it would be like a part time job. Maybe a full time job. There's all these blogs, The Points Guy, One Mile at a Time, View from the Wing, Million Mile Secrets… to help you figure out how to exploit frequent flyer mile programs. And most of what they list is just hey, Delta has a new credit card that has 20,000 mile bonus only available for the next three months. That kind of thing. But they're constantly changing what the rules are, so these guys are constantly updating people.
JOHN: Yes, but there's a cost associated with finding all these loopholes, it takes time. It becomes as you say a part or full time job for some people. Are they really rational for doing that?
ADAM: Actually, let's get into the actual intellectual debate that you and I are having. The terms of this debate for me are behavioral versus rational.
JOHN: So let's define our terms very carefully here, because this all hinges on an economic definition of rational in which it is rational to fill your garage with pudding. And behavioral in this context, I don't know what it means at all. So you tell me, Planet Money.
ADAM: Okay, fair enough. So this might be the most obnoxious thing I've said on the radio, but I'm gonna say it. I hate talking about the rational versus behavioral economics debate with laypeople, with people who have not been trained in economics.
JOHN: Oh, I'm so sorry. Excuse me, I'll leave right away, oh I apologize. I just want to remind you, diamond medallion status. I think I've earned this very brief economics lesson from you. It's on the back of my card, I get one for free.
ADAM: So I think in popular terms everyone's obviously like oh, well the rational school doesn't make sense. I've actually met human beings and I've had the observation that they are not in any way rational but the rational school is more like well people are nuts, yes, but over time and on average the nutsiness sort of averages out.
JOHN: In the long-form scatter-graph of behavior, the arc of madness bends to rational.
ADAM: Yes exactly, that is a beautiful way to put it. This actually has big implications, because if you believe…
JOHN: Oh my god is this going to be a big idea? Can't we just do a podcast? Alright let's hear it, big implications. I'm ready.
ADAM: Big implications, alright. This is why it's Surprisingly Awesome. We reach for something. We make life different.
JOHN: No, I understand. This is why Gimlet has a beautiful studio and tons of listeners and why all the other podcasts that I do are just dudes talking on Skype. About movies.
JOHN: Alright, they don't have big ideas. I'm ready, I'm ready to…
ADAM: Big ideas are where the money is.
JOHN: I'm ready to level up.
ADAM: So, the rational school of economics holds that people figure stuff out on their own. They decide what is worth spending money, what is worth worrying about. But over the last 30 years there's this other school, it's a younger school, the behavioral school of economics. Which holds that people are manipulable, they don't make always the best choices especially with calculating their long-term benefits, and generally, while I like the behavioral school and I don't reject it, I do generally think that the rational school explains a lot of behavior, it explains a lot of my behavior, and this area, and I've thought about this quite a lot over the years, this area of frequent flyer miles is this part of my life where I'm like oh, maybe I'm totally wrong. But in this journey, as I learn more, I came to a conclusion that actually shocked me. And also delighted me. Which is this: I think I'm really rational about this.
ADAM: I did the math, alright, and as far as I can tell, I spend somewhere between two and three thousand more each year so that I can have Platinum status. But I decided when I looked at those numbers, like, I travel enough that it is worth between two and three thousand dollars to be able to board the plane first and not stand in long lines, to be able to use the Delta lounge to get upgraded to first class for free from time to time. So I'm being rational.
JOHN: It sounds to me like you're redefining rationality so you can claim that you're rational. Now here's the thing, I don't think that you're telling the truth. Because if you were offered from Delta the chance to get all of these perks, if you just give them $2000, I mean you may do it but you love the game. You love earning them. This is better than just buying status, you've earned it. You love the status.
ADAM: You're absolutely right, there is no question. I love looking at someone's Gold or Silver medallion and thinking I'm Platinum. I like looking at my Delta app and seeing the little green line go closer and closer to my next status level. But my point is, all of that, all that status stuff, that's just extra. That's just... dare I say it… the pudding at the end of a delicious meal.
ADAM: Surprisingly Awesome’s theme music is by our wonderful friend Nicholas Britell. Our ad music is by Build Buildings. We were edited this week by Caitlin Kenney, Annie-Rose Strasser, and Alex Blumberg, and produced by Kalila Holt and Rachel Ward. We were mixed by David Herman. David Herman is, in fact, our hero. We hope Matthew Boll feels better soon.
JOHN: Emma Jacobs, Andrew Norton, Jacob Cruz and the Block House in Austin, Texas provided production assistance. With special thanks to Steve Belkin, Gary Leff, Mara Lederman, Conor Henderson and Michael McCall.
ADAM: And I want to give a shoutout to our co-host Adam McKay. Congratulations man, on winning an Oscar.
JOHN: That's the ultimate status, by the way.
ADAM: Yeah, that's better than even Diamond status on Delta. You can tweet us at @surprisingshow, email us firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re on Facebook, and at gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com/awesome.
JOHN: Surprisingly Awesome is a production of Gimlet Media. I'm John Hodgman, Diamond Medallion, eat it suckers.
ADAM: Thanks to our sponsor Squarespace, the easiest way to create a beautiful website, portfolio, or online store. When you decide to sign up for Squarespace, make sure to use the offer code AWESOME to get 10-percent off your first purchase, and to show your support for our show. Squarespace… build it beautiful.
ADAM: Thanks to our sponsor Ford Motor Company where Ford engineers bring new and innovative ideas to life every day. Go to Ford-dot-com to learn more.
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RACHEL: So we’ve been on hold now for about a minute.
JOHN: I started a timer 34 seconds ago and it says 34 seconds.
PHONE: What’s your AAdvantage account number, or say I don’t have one.
JOHN: D …
PHONE: That number is C …
PHONE: My mistake. What’s your AAdvantage account number?
JOHN: D …
PHONE: That number is P.
PHONE: Sorry, that number is P.
PHONE: Sorry, I’m still having trouble recognizing your AAdvantage…
PHONE: What’s your AAdvantage account number, or say I don’t have one.
JOHN: D …
PHONE: That number is V …