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Transcript for Tucker Carlson: Putin, Navalny, Trump, CIA, NSA, War, Politics & Freedom | Lex Fridman Podcast #414

This is a transcript of Lex Fridman Podcast #414 with Tucker Carlson.
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Introduction

Tucker Carlson
(00:00:00)
… he said very specifically, “Depending on the questions you ask Putin, you could be arrested or not.” And I said, “Listen to what you’re saying. You’re saying the US government has control over my questions and they’ll arrest me if I ask the wrong question. How are we better than Putin if that’s true?” Killing Navalny during the Munich Security Conference in the middle of a debate over $60 billion in Ukraine funding. Maybe the Russians are dumb. I didn’t get that vibe at all. I don’t think we kill people in other countries to affect election outcomes. Oh wait, no, we do it a lot and have for 80 years.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:39)
The following is a conversation with Tucker Carlson, a highly influential and often controversial political commentator. When he was a Fox, Time Magazine called him the most powerful conservative in America. After Fox. He has continued to host big, impactful interviews and shows on X, on the Tucker Carlson podcast, and on tuckercarlson.com. I recommend subscribing, even if you disagree with his views. It is always good to explore a diversity of perspectives. Most recently, he interviewed the President of Russia of Vladimir Putin. We discussed this, the topic of Russia, Putin, Navalny, and the War in Ukraine at length in this conversation. Please allow me to say a few words about the very fact that I did this interview. I have received a lot of criticism publicly and privately when I announced that I’ll be talking with Tucker.

(00:01:32)
For people who think I shouldn’t do the conversation with Tucker or generally think that there are certain people I should never talk to, I’m sorry, but I disagree. I will talk to everyone, as long as they’re willing to talk genuinely in long form for 2, 3, 4 or more hours. I’ll talk to Putin and to Zelensky, to Trump and to Biden, to Tucker and to John Stewart, AOC, Obama, and many more people with very different views on the world. I want to understand people and ideas. That’s what long form conversations are supposed to be all about. Now for people who criticize me for not asking tough questions, I hear you, but again, I disagree. I do often ask tough questions. But I try to do it in a way that doesn’t shut down the other person, putting them into a defensive state where they give only shallow talking points. Instead, I’m looking always for the expression of genuinely held ideas and the deep roots of those ideas. When done well, this gives us a chance to really hear out the guest and to begin to understand what and how they think.

(00:02:40)
And I trust the intelligence of you, the listener, to make up your own mind to see through the bullshit, to the degree there’s bullshit and to see to the heart of the person. Sometimes I fail at this, but I’ll continue working my ass off to improve. All that said, I find that this no tough questions criticism often happens when the guest is a person the listener simply hates and wants to see them grilled into embarrassment. Called the liar, a greedy egomaniac, a killer, maybe even an evil human being and so on. If you are such a listener, what you want is drama, not wisdom. In this case, this show is not for you. There are many shows you can go to for that with hosts that are way more charismatic and entertaining than I’ll ever be. If you do stick around, please know I will work hard to do this well and to keep improving. Thank you for your patience and thank you for your support. I love you all. This is a Lex Fridman podcast To support it. Please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, dear friends, here’s Tucker Carlson.

Putin


(00:03:53)
What was your first impression when you met Vladimir Putin for the interview?
Tucker Carlson
(00:03:58)
I thought he seemed nervous, and I was very surprised by that. And I thought he seemed like someone who’d overthought it a little bit, who had a plan, and I don’t think that’s the right way to go into any interview. My strong sense, having done a lot of them for a long time, is that it’s better to know what you think, to say as much as you can honestly, so you don’t get confused by your own lies, and just to be yourself. And I thought that he went into it like an over-prepared student, and I kept thinking, “Why is he nervous?” But I guess because he thought a lot of people were going to see it,
Lex Fridman
(00:04:39)
But he was also probably prepared to give you a full lesson in history as he did.
Tucker Carlson
(00:04:46)
Well, I was totally shocked by that and very annoyed because I thought he was filibustering. I mean, I asked him as I usually do the most obvious dumbest question ever, which is, “Why’d you do this?” And he had said in a speech that I think is worth reading. I don’t speak Russian, so I haven’t heard it in the original, but he had said at the moment of the beginning of the war, he had given this address to Russians, in which he explained to the fullest extent we have seen so far why he was doing this. And he said in that speech, “I fear that NATO the West, the United States, the Biden administration will preemptively attack us.” And I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” I can’t evaluate whether that’s a fear rooted in reality or one rooted in paranoia. But I thought, “Well, that’s an answer right there.”

(00:05:39)
And so I alluded to that in my question and rather than answering it, he went off on this long from my perspective, kind of tiresome, sort of greatest hits of Russian history. And the implication I thought was, “Well, Ukraine is ours, or Eastern Ukraine is ours already.” And I thought he was doing that to avoid answering the question. So the last thing you want when you’re interviewing someone is to get rolled, and I didn’t want to be rolled. So I, a couple of times interrupted him politely, I thought, but he wasn’t having it. And then I thought, “You know what? I’m not here to prove that I’m a great interviewer. It’s kind of not about me.”

(00:06:20)
I want to know who this guy is. I think a western audience, a global audience, has a right to know more about the guy, and so just let him talk. Because I don’t feel like my reputation’s on the line. People have already drawn conclusions about me, I suppose to the extent they have. I’m not interested really in those conclusions anyway, so just let him talk. And so I calmed down and just let him talk. And in retrospect, I thought that was really, really interesting. Whether you agree with it or not, or whether you think it’s relevant to the war in Ukraine or not, that was his answer. And so it’s inherently significant.
Lex Fridman
(00:06:52)
Well, you said he was nervous. Were you nervous? Were you afraid? This is Vladimir Putin.
Tucker Carlson
(00:06:57)
I wasn’t afraid at all, and I wasn’t nervous at all.
Lex Fridman
(00:07:01)
Did you drink tea beforehand?
Tucker Carlson
(00:07:02)
No. I did my normal regimen of nicotine pouches and coffee. No, I’m not a tea drinker. I try not to eat all the sweets they put in front of us, which is… That is my weakness, is eating crap. But you eat a lot of sugar as you know before an interview, and it does dull you. So I successfully resisted that. But no, I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t nervous the whole time I was there. Why would I be? I’m 54, my kids are grown. I believe in God. I’m almost never nervous. But no, I wasn’t nervous, I was just interested. I mean, I’m interested in Soviet history. I studied it in college. I’ve read about it my entire life. My dad worked in the Cold War. It was a constant topic of conversation. And so to be in the Kremlin in a room where Stalin made decisions, either wartime decisions or decisions about murdering his own population, I just couldn’t get over it.

(00:07:52)
We were in Molotov’s old office. So for me, I was just blown away by that. I thought I knew a lot about Russia. It turns out I knew a lot about the Soviet period, the 1937 purge trials, the famine in Ukraine. I knew a fair amount about that, but I really knew nothing about contemporary Russia, less than I thought I did, it turned out. But yeah, I was just blown away by where we were, and that’s kind of one of the main drivers at this stage in my life. That’s why I do what I do, is because I’m interested in stuff and I want to see as much as I can and try and draw conclusions from it to the extent I can. So I was very much caught up in that. But no, I wasn’t nervous. I didn’t think he was going to kill me or something, and I’m not particularly afraid of that anyway.
Lex Fridman
(00:08:38)
Not afraid of dying?
Tucker Carlson
(00:08:39)
Not really, no. I mean, again, it’s an age and stage in life thing. I mean, I have four children, so there were times when they were little where I was terrified of dying because if I died, it would have huge consequences. But no, I mean, at this point, I don’t want to die. I’m really enjoying my life. But I’ve been with the same girl for 40 years, and I have four children who I’m extremely close to. Well, now five, a daughter-in-law, and I love them all. I’m really close to them. I tell them I love them every day. I’ve had a really interesting life.
Lex Fridman
(00:09:16)
What was the goal? Just linger on that. What was the goal for the interview? How were you thinking about it? What would success be like in your head leading into it?
Tucker Carlson
(00:09:22)
To bring more information, to the public.
Lex Fridman
(00:09:22)
Disinformation.
Tucker Carlson
(00:09:26)
Yeah, that’s it. I mean, I have really strong feelings about what’s happening not just in Ukraine or Russia, but around the world. I think the world is resetting to the grave disadvantage of the United States. I don’t think most Americans are aware of that at all. And so that’s my view, and I’ve stated it many times because it’s sincere. But my goal was to have more information brought to the West so people could make their own decisions about whether this is a good idea.

(00:09:59)
I mean, I guess I reject the whole premise of the war in Ukraine from the American perspective, which is a tiny group of dumb people in Washington has decided to do this for reasons they won’t really explain. And you don’t have a role in it at all as an American citizen, as the person who’s paying for it, whose children might be drafted to fight it. To shut up and obey, I just reject that completely. I think, I guess I’m a child of a different era. I’m a child of participatory democracy to some extent, where your opinion as a citizen is not irrelevant. And I guess the level of lying about it was starting to drive me crazy.

(00:10:38)
And I’ve said, and I will say again, I’m not an expert on the regional, really any region other than say western Maine. I just don’t, I’m not Russian, but it was obvious to me that we were being lied to in ways that were just… It was crazy, the scale of lies. And I’ll just give you one example. The idea that Ukraine would inevitably win this war. Now victory was never, as it never is, defined precisely. Nothing’s ever defined precisely, which is always to tell that there’s deception at the heart of the claim. But Ukraine’s on the verge of winning. Well, I don’t know. I mean, I’m hardly a tactician or military expert. For the fifth time, I’m not an expert on Russia or Ukraine. I just looked at Wikipedia. Russia has a hundred million more people than Ukraine, a hundred million.

(00:11:24)
It has much deeper industrial capacity, war material capacity than all of NATO combined. For example, Russia is turning out artillery shells, which are significant in a ground war at a ratio of seven to one compared to all NATO countries combined. That’s all of Europe. Russia is producing seven times the artillery shells as all of Europe combined. What? That’s an amazing fact, and it turns out to be a really significant fact. In fact, the significant fact. But if you ask your average person in this country, even a fairly well-informed person of good faith who’s just trying to understand what’s going on, who’s going to win this war? Well, Ukraine’s going to win. They’re on the right side.

(00:12:09)
And they think that because our media who really just do serve the interest of the US government, period, they are state media in that sense, have told them that for over two years. And I was in Hungary last summer talking to the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who’s whatever you think of him, he’s a very smart guy, very smart guy, smart on a scale that we’re not used to in our leaders. And I said to him, off camera, “So is Ukraine going to win?” And he looked at me like I was deranged or I was congenitally deficient. Are they going to win? No. Of course they can’t win. It’s tiny compared to Russia. Russia has a wartime economy. Ukraine doesn’t really have an economy. No, look at the populations. He looked at me like I was stupid.

(00:12:52)
And I said to him, “I think most Americans believe that because NBC News and CNN and all the news channels, all of them tell them that because it’s framed exclusively in moral terms, and it’s Churchill versus Hitler. And of course, Churchill’s going to prevail in the end.” And it’s just so dishonest that it doesn’t even matter what I want to happen or what I think ought to happen, that’s a distortion of what is happening. And if I have any job at all, which I sort of don’t actually at this point, but if I do have a job, it’s to just try to be honest, and that’s a lie.
Lex Fridman
(00:13:20)
There is a more nuanced discussion about what winning might look like. You’re right a nuanced discussion is not being had, but it is possible for Ukraine to, quote unquote, “win” with the help of the United States.
Tucker Carlson
(00:13:31)
I guess that conversation needs to begin by defining terms. And the key term is win. What does that mean?
Lex Fridman
(00:13:39)
Peace, a ceasefire, who owns which land, coming to the table with, as you call the parent in the United States, putting leverage on the negotiation to make sure there’s a fairness.
Tucker Carlson
(00:13:53)
Amen. Well, of course, as A, and I should just restate this, I am not emotionally involved in this. I’m American in every sense, and my only interest is in America. I’m not leaving ever. And so I’m looking at this purely from our perspective, what’s good for us. But also as a human being, as a Christian, I mean, I hate war. And anybody who doesn’t hate war shouldn’t have power, in my opinion. So I agree with that definition vehemently a victory is not killing an entire generation of your population. It’s not being completely destroyed to be eaten up by BlackRock or whatever comes next for them.

(00:14:37)
So yeah, we were close to that a year and a half ago, and the Biden administration dispatched Boris Johnson, the briefly prime minister of the UK to stop it and to say to Zelensky, who I feel sorry for by the way, because he’s caught between these forces that are bigger than he is, to say, “No, you cannot come to any terms with Russia.” And the result of that has not been a Ukrainian victory. It’s just been more dead Ukrainians and a lot of profit for the West. It’s a moral crime in my opinion. And I tried to ask Boris Johnson about it because why wouldn’t I? After he denounced me as a tool of the Kremlin or something, and he demanded a million dollars to talk to me. And this just happened last week. And by the way, in writing too, I’m not making this…
Lex Fridman
(00:15:23)
Just for the record, you demanded a million dollars from me to talk to me today.
Tucker Carlson
(00:15:27)
I didn’t. And you paid. No, I’m of course kidding. And I said to his guy, I said, “I just interviewed Putin who was widely recognized as a bad guy.” And he did it for free. He didn’t demand a million dollars. He wasn’t in this for profit. Are you telling me that Boris Johnson is sleazier than Vladimir Putin? And of course, that is the message. And so I guess these are really… It’s not just about Boris Johnson being a sad rapacious fraud, which he is obviously, but it’s about the future of the West and the future of Ukraine, this country that purportedly we care so much about. All these people are dying, and what is the end game? It’s also deranged that I didn’t imagine, and don’t imagine that I could add anything very meaningful to the conversation because I’m not a genius. But I felt like I could at the very least, puncture some of the lies, and that’s an inherent good.
Lex Fridman
(00:16:23)
Vladimir Putin, after the interview said that he wasn’t fully satisfied because you weren’t aggressive enough. You didn’t ask sharp enough questions. First of all, what do you think about him saying that?
Tucker Carlson
(00:16:34)
I don’t even understand it. I guess it does seem like the one Putin statement that Western media take at face value. Everything else Putin says is a lie except his criticism of me, which is true. But I mean, I have no idea what he meant by that. I can only tell you what my goal was, as I’ve suggested, was not to make it about me. He hasn’t done any interviews of any kind for years, but the last interview he did with an English-speaking reporter, Western media reporter, was like many of the other interviews he’d done with Western media reporters. Mike Wallace’s son did an interview with him that was of the same variety. And it was all about him. I’m a good person. You’re a bad person. And I just feel like that’s the most tiresome, fruitless kind of interview.

(00:17:21)
It’s not about me. I don’t think I’m an especially good person. I’ve definitely never claimed to be, but people can make their own judgments. And again, the only judgments that I care about are my wife and children and God. So I’m just not interested in proving I’m a good person and I just want to hear from him. And I had a lot of… I mean, you should see, I almost never write questions down, but I did in this case because I had months… Well, I had three years to think about it as I was trying to book the interview, which I did myself. But it was all about internal Russian politics and Navalny. And I had a lot of, what I thought, really good questions. And then at the last second, and you make these decisions, as you know, since you interview people a lot, often you make them on the fly.

(00:18:04)
And I thought, “No, I want to talk about the things that haven’t been talked about and that I think matter in a world historic sense.” And the number one among those, of course, is the war and what it means for the world. And so I stuck to that. I mean, I did ask about Gershkovich, who I felt sorry for, and I wanted Putin to release him to me. And I was offended that he didn’t. I thought his rationale was absurd. “Well, we want to trade him for someone.” I said, “Well, doesn’t that make him a hostage?” Which of course it does. But other than that, I really wanted to keep it to the things that I think matter most. People can judge whether I did a good job or not, but that was my decision.
Lex Fridman
(00:18:44)
In the moment, what was your gut? Did you want to ask some tough questions as follow-ups on certain topics?
Tucker Carlson
(00:18:52)
I don’t know what it would mean to ask a tough question.
Lex Fridman
(00:18:54)
Clarifying questions, I suppose they would-
Tucker Carlson
(00:18:56)
I guess. I just wanted him to talk. I just wanted to hear his perspective again. I’ve probably asked more asshole questions than any living American. As has been noted correctly, I’m a dick by my nature, and so I just feel at this stage of my life, I didn’t need to prove that I could be like, “Vladimir Putin, answer the question.”
Lex Fridman
(00:18:56)
For sure. For sure.
Tucker Carlson
(00:19:21)
I think if I had been 34 instead of 54, I definitely would’ve done that because I would’ve thought, “This is really about me and I need to prove myself and all that stuff.” No, there’s a war going on that is wrecking the US economy in a way and at a scale people do not understand. The US dollar is going away. That was, of course, inevitable ultimately because everything dies, including currencies. But that death, that process of death has been accelerated exponentially by the behavior of the Biden administration and the US Congress, particularly the sanctions. And people don’t understand what the ramifications of that are. The ramifications are poverty in the United States. So I just wanted to get to that because I’m coming at this from not a global perspective. I’m coming at it from an American perspective.

Navalny

Lex Fridman
(00:20:08)
So you mentioned Navalny. After you left, Navalny died in prison. What are your thoughts on just at a high level, first about his death?
Tucker Carlson
(00:20:20)
Well, it’s awful. I mean, imagine dying in prison. I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve known a lot of people in prison a lot, including some very good friends of mine. So I felt instantly sad about it. From a geopolitical perspective, I don’t know any more than that. And I laugh at and sort of resent, but mostly find amusing the claims by American politicians, who really are the dumbest politicians in the world actually, “This happened and here’s what it means.” And it’s like, “Actually as a factual matter, we don’t know what happened. We don’t know what happened.” We have no freaking idea what happened. We can say, and I did say, and I will say again, I don’t think you should put opposition figures in prison. I really don’t. I don’t, period. It happens a lot around the world, happens in this country, as you know, and I’m against all of it.

(00:21:09)
But do we know how we died? The short answer? No, we don’t. Now, if I had to guess, I would say killing Navalny during the Munich Security Conference in the middle of a debate over $60 billion in Ukraine funding, maybe the Russians are dumb. I didn’t get that vibe at all. I don’t see it. But maybe they killed him. I mean, they certainly put him in prison, which I’m against. But here’s what I do know is that we don’t know. And so when Chuck Schumer stands up and [inaudible 00:21:42]. Joe Biden reads some card in front of him with lines about Navalny, it’s like, I’m allowed to laugh at that because it’s absurd. You don’t know.
Lex Fridman
(00:21:49)
There’s a lot of interesting ideas about if he was killed, who killed him, because it could be Putin, it could be somebody in Russia who’s not Putin. It could be Ukrainians because it would benefit the war.
Tucker Carlson
(00:22:02)
They killed Dugan’s daughter in Moscow. So yeah, that’s possible.
Lex Fridman
(00:22:06)
And it could be… I mean, the United States could also be involved.
Tucker Carlson
(00:22:10)
I don’t think we kill people in other countries to affect election outcomes. Oh, wait, no, we do it a lot and have for 80 years, and it’s shameful. I can say that as an American because it’s my money and my name. Yeah, I’m really offended by that. And I never thought that was true. And again, I’m much older than you, and so I spent, my worldview was defined by the Cold War and very much in the house I lived in Georgetown, Washington DC. That’s what we talked about. And the left at the time, I don’t know, the wacko MIT professor who I never had any respect for, who I know you’ve interviewed, et cetera. The hard left was always saying, “Well, the United States government is interfering in other elections.”

(00:22:53)
And I just dismissed that completely out of hand as stupid and actually a slander against my country, but it turned out to all be true or substantially true anyway. And that’s been a real shock for me in middle age to understand that. But anyway, as to Navalny, look, I don’t know. But we should always proceed on the basis of what we do know, which is to say on the basis of truth, knowable truth. And if you have an entire policymaking apparatus that is making the biggest decisions on the face of the planet, on the basis of things that are bullshit or lies, you’re going to get bad outcomes every time, every time. And that’s why we are where we are.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:33)
Does it bother you that basically the most famous opposition figure in Russia is sitting in prison?
Tucker Carlson
(00:23:40)
Well, of course it does. Of course it bothers me. I mean, it bothered me when I got there. It bothers me now. I was sad when he died. Yeah, I mean, that’s one of the measures… It’s one of the basic measures of political freedom. Are you imprisoning people who oppose you? Are you imprisoning people who pose a physical risk to you? I mean, there are some subjective decision-making involved in these things. However, big picture, yeah. Do you have leaders in jail? It’s not a politically free society, and Russia isn’t, obviously. And as I said, a friend of mine from childhood, an American actually was a wonderful person, lives in Russia, in Moscow, with his Russian wife, and I had dinner with him. He’s a very balanced guy, totally non-political person, and speaks Russian and loves his many Russian children and loves the culture.

(00:24:35)
And there’s a lot to love, the culture that produced Tolstoy. It’s not a gas station with nuclear weapons. Sorry. Only a moron would say that. It’s a very deep culture. I don’t fully understand it, of course, but I admire it. Who wouldn’t? But I asked him, “What’s it like living here?” And he goes, “It’s great. Moscow is a great city indisputably.” He said, “You don’t want to get involved in Russian politics.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, you could get hurt. You could wind up like Navalny if you did. But also, it’s just too complicated.”

(00:25:03)
The Russian mind is not exactly the same… It’s Western, it’s a European city, but it’s not quite European. And the way they think is very, very complex. Very complex. It’s too complicated. Just don’t get involved. And I would just say two things. One, I’m not sure. I mean, I don’t know, but my strong sense is that Navalny’s death, whoever did it, probably didn’t have a lot to do with the coming election in Russia. My sense from talking to Putin and the people around him is they’re not really focused on that. In fact, I asked one of his top advisors, “When’s the election?” And she looked at me completely confused. She didn’t know the date of the election. Okay. She’s like March.

(00:25:46)
And I asked a bunch of other people just in Moscow, “Who’s Putin running against?” Nobody knew. So it’s not a real election in the sense that we would recognize at all. Second, I was really struck by so many things in Moscow and really deeply bothered by a lot of things that I saw there. But one thing I noticed was the total absence of cult of personality propaganda, which I expected to see and have seen around the world. Jordan, for example, I don’t know if you’ve been to Jordan, but go to Jordan. In every building, there are pictures of the king and his extended family, and that’s a sign of political insecurity.

(00:26:25)
You don’t create a cult of personality unless you’re personally insecure. And also, unless you’re worried about losing your grip and power. None of that. It’s interesting. And I expected to see a lot of it, like statues of Putin. No. There are no statues of anybody other than Christian saints. I’m not quite sure. I’m just reporting what I saw. So yes, in a political sense. It’s not a free country. It’s not a democracy in the way that we would understand it or I don’t want to live there because I like to say what I think. In fact, I make my living doing it. But it’s not Stalinist in a recognizable way. And anyone who says it is should go there and tell me how.
Lex Fridman
(00:27:08)
I mean, this question about the freedom of the press is underlying the very fact of the interview you’re having with him. So you might not need to ask the Navalny question, but did you feel like, “Are there things I shouldn’t say?”
Tucker Carlson
(00:27:23)
I mean, how honest do you want me to be? I mean, when I say I felt not one twinge of concern for the eight days that I was there. Maybe I just didn’t… And I feel like I’ve got a pretty strong gut sense of things. I rely on it. I make all my decisions based on how I feel, my instincts. And I didn’t feel it at all. My lawyers before I left, and these are people who work for a big law firm. This is not Bob’s law firm. This is one of the biggest law firms in the world, said, “You’re going to get arrested if you do this by the US government on sanctions violations.”

(00:27:57)
And I said, “Well, I don’t recognize the legitimacy of that actually, because I’m American and I’ve lived here my whole life. And that’s so outrageous that I’m happy to face that risk because I so reject the premise. Okay, I’m an American. I should be able to talk to anyone I want to, and I plan to exercise that freedom, which I think I was born with.” And I gave them this long lecture. They’re like, “We’re just lawyers.” But that was… Let me put it this way, I don’t know how much you’ve dealt with lawyers, but it costs many thousands of dollars to get a conclusion like that. They sent a whole bunch of their summer associates or whatever.

(00:28:33)
They put a lot of people on this question, checked a lot of precedent, and they sent me a 10-page memo on it, and their sincere conclusion was, “Do not do this.” And of course, it made me mad. So I was lecturing on the phone and I had another call with a head lawyer and he said, “Well, look, a lot will depend on the questions that you ask Putin. If you’re seen as too nice to him, you could get arrested when you come back.” And I was like, “You’re describing a fascist country. Okay. You’re saying that the US government will arrest me if I don’t ask the questions they want asked, is that what’s you’re saying?” “Well, we just think based on what’s happened, that that’s possible.” And so I’m just telling you what happened.
Lex Fridman
(00:29:11)
So you were okay being arrested in Moscow and arrested back in-
Tucker Carlson
(00:29:15)
I didn’t think for a second… I mean, maybe. Look, I don’t speak Russian. I’d never been there before. Everything about the culture was brand new to me. Ignorance does protect you sort of when you have no freaking idea what’s going on, you’re not worried about it. This has happened to me many times. There’s a principle there that extends throughout life. So it’s completely possible that I was in grave peril and didn’t know it because how would I know it? I’m like a bumbling English speaker from California, but I didn’t feel it at all.
Lex Fridman
(00:29:48)
But the lawyers did.
Tucker Carlson
(00:29:49)
Yeah. I mean, it scared the crap out of people. You’re going to look… And you have to pay in cash. They don’t take credit cards because of sanctions. And you have to go through all these hoops, just procedural hoops to go to Russia, which I was willing to do because I wanted to interview Putin because they told me I couldn’t. But then there’s another fact, which is that I was being surveilled by the US government, intensely surveilled by the US government. And this came out, they admitted it, the NSA admitted it a couple of years ago that they were up in my signal account, and then they leaked it to the New York Times. They did that again before I left.

(00:30:21)
And I know that because two New York Times reporters, one of whom I actually like a lot, said and called other people. “Oh, he’s going to interview Putin.” I hadn’t told anybody that, like anybody. My wife, two producers, that’s it. So they got that from the government. Then I’m over there, and of course I want to see Snowden, who I admire. And so we have a mutual friend. So I got his text and come on over, and Snowden does not want publicity at all. But I really wanted to have dinner with him. So we had dinner in my hotel room at the Four Seasons in Moscow, and I tried to convince him, “I’d love to do an interview, shoot it on my iPhone.” I’d-
Tucker Carlson
(00:31:00)
… just do an interview, shoot it on my iPhone. I’d love to take a picture together and put it on the internet because I just want to show support because I think he’s been railroaded. He had no interest in living in Russia, no intention of being in Russia. The whole thing is a lie. But anyway, whatever, all this stuff. He just said, “Respectfully, I’d rather not anyone know that we met.” Great. I didn’t tell anybody and I didn’t text it to anybody, okay, except him. Semaphore runs this piece reporting information they got from the US Intel agencies leaking against me using my money, in my name, in a supposedly free country, they run this piece saying I’d met with Snowden like it was a crime or something. So again, my interest is in the United States and preserving freedoms here, the ones that I grew up with. If you have a media establishment that acts as an auxiliary of, or acts as employees of the national security state, you don’t have a free country and that’s where we are.

(00:32:07)
I’m not guessing, because I spent my entire life in that world, 33 years, I worked in big news companies and so I know how it works. I know the people involved in it. I could name them, Ben Smith of Semaphore, among many others and I find that really objectionable, not just on principle either, in effect, in practice, I don’t want to live in that kind of country. People externalize all of their anxiety about this I have noticed. So it’s like Russia is not free. Yeah, I know. Neither is Burkina Faso, most countries aren’t free actually, but we are. We’re the United States. We’re different. That’s my concern. Preserving that is my concern. They get so exercised about what’s happening in other parts of the world, places they’ve never been, know nothing about, it’s almost a way of ignoring what’s happening in their own country right around them. I find it so strange and sad and weird.
Lex Fridman
(00:33:00)
So the NSA was tracking you? Do you think CIA was? Is people still tracking you?
Tucker Carlson
(00:33:06)
Look, one of the things I did before I went, just because the business I’m in, all of us are in, and just because we live here, we all have theories about secure communications channels. Like signal is secure, Telegraph isn’t, or WhatsApp is owned by Mark Zuckerberg, you can’t trust, well, okay. So I thought before I go over here, we were having all these conversations, my producers and I about this, and I decide I’m just going to actually find out what’s really going on. I talked to two people who would know, trust me, and it’s all I can say. I hate to be like, oh, I talked to people who would know but I can’t share who. But I mean it, they would know. Both of them said exactly the same thing, which is, “Are you joking, nothing is secure. Everything is monitored all the time.”

(00:33:55)
If state actors are involved, you can keep whatever the Malaysian mafia from reading your texts probably. You cannot keep the big Intel services from reading your texts, it’s not possible, any of them, or listening to your calls. That was the firm conclusion of people who’ve been involved in it for a long time, decades, in both cases. I just thought, you know what, I don’t care. I don’t care. I’m not sending a ton of naked pictures of myself to anybody.
Lex Fridman
(00:34:24)
Not a ton, just the little?
Tucker Carlson
(00:34:25)
Not a ton. I’m 54, dude, probably not too many. The guys travel with three people I work with, who I love, who I’ve been around the world with for many years, and I know them really, really well and they all got separate phones and I’m leaving my other phone back in New York or whatever. I just decided I don’t care, actually. I resent having no privacy because privacy is a prerequisite for freedom, but I can’t change it, and so I have the same surveilled cell phone. I do switch them out. There it is. Because if you have too much spyware on your phone, this is true, it wrecks the battery.

(00:35:16)
No, I’m serious. It does. It was, I don’t know, five or six years ago we went to North Korea, and my phone started acting crazy. I talked to someone on the National Security Council, actually who called me about this, somehow knew that your phone is being surveilled by the South Korean government. I was like, “I like the South Korean government. Why would they do that?” Because they want more information, they thought I was talking to Trump or whatever. But I could tell because all of a sudden the thing would just drain in like 45 minutes so that’s a downside.
Lex Fridman
(00:35:50)
You keep switching phones, getting new phones for the battery life. That’s good.
Tucker Carlson
(00:35:54)
Yeah. I try not to do it. I’m kind of flinty Yankee type in some ways, so I don’t like to spend $1,000 with the freaking Apple corporation too often, but yeah, I do.
Lex Fridman
(00:36:04)
You say it lightly, but it’s really troublesome that you, as a journalist, would be tracked.
Tucker Carlson
(00:36:10)
Well, they leaked it to Semaphore and they leaked it to the New York Times. Well, there’s nothing I can do, so I have to put up with everything, but I would probably not be actively angry about being surveilled because I’m just so old and I actually do pay my taxes, and I’m not sleeping with the makeup artist or whatever so I don’t care that much. The fact that they are leaking against me, that the Intel services in the United States are actively engaged in US politics and media, that’s so unacceptable. That makes democracy impossible. There’s no defense of that. And yet NBC News, Ken Dilanian and the rest will defend it, and not just on NBC news, by the way, on the supposedly conservative channels too, they will defend it and there’s no defending that. You can’t have democracy if the Intel services are tempering in elections and information, period.
Lex Fridman
(00:37:05)
So you had no fear. Your lawyer said, be careful which questions you asked. You said, I don’t have-
Tucker Carlson
(00:37:13)
Well, no, he said very specifically, depending on the questions you ask Putin, you could be arrested or not. I said, “Listen to what you’re saying. You’re saying the US government has control over my questions and they’ll arrest me if I ask the wrong question. How are we better than Putin if that’s true.” By the way, that’s just what the lawyer said. But I can’t overstate, one of the biggest law firms in the United States, smart lawyers we’ve used for years so I was really shocked by it.
Lex Fridman
(00:37:42)
You said leaders kill, leaders lie.
Tucker Carlson
(00:37:45)
Yeah. I don’t believe in leaders very much like this whole, “Oh, Zelensky’s Jesus and Putin’s Satan.” It’s like, no, they’re all leaders of countries. Grow up a little bit you child. Have you ever met a leader? First of all, anyone who seeks power is damaged morally, in my opinion. You shouldn’t be seeking power. You can’t seek power or wealth for its own sake and remain a decent person. That’s just true. So there aren’t any really virtuous billionaires and there aren’t any really virtuous world leaders. You have grades of virtue, some are better than others for sure. In other words, Zelensky may be better than Putin. I’m open to that possibility. But to claim that one is evil and the other is virtuous, it’s like, you’re revealing that you’re a child, you don’t know anything about how the world actually is or what reality is.
Lex Fridman
(00:38:43)
That’s quite a realist perspective, but there is a spectrum.
Tucker Carlson
(00:38:46)
There’s a spectrum, absolutely. I’m not saying they’re all the same. They’re not.
Lex Fridman
(00:38:48)
And our task is to figure out where on the spectrum they lie and the leader’s task is to confuse us and convince us they’re one of the good guys.
Tucker Carlson
(00:38:59)
Of course. Of course. But I actually reject even that formulation. I don’t think it’s always about the leaders. Of course the leaders make the difference. A good leader has a healthy country and a bad leader has a decaying country, which is something to think about. But it’s about the ideas and the policies and the practical effect of things. So we’re very much caught up in the personalities of various leaders, not just our political leaders, but our business leaders, our cultural leaders. Are they good people? Do they have the right thoughts? It’s like, no, I ask a much more basic question, what are the fruits of their behavior? I always make it personal because I think everything is personal. Does his wife respect him? Do his children respect him? How are they doing? Is the country he runs thriving or is it falling apart? If your life expectancy is going down, if your suicide rate is going up, if your standard of living is tanking, you’re not a good leader.

(00:39:51)
I don’t care what you tell me. I don’t care what you claim you represent. I don’t care about the ideas or the systems that you say you embody. It’s dogs barking to me. How’s your life expectancy? How’s your suicide rate? What’s drug use like? Are people having children? Are people’s children more likely to live in a free or more prosperous society than you did and their grandparents did? Those are the only measures that matter to me, the rest is a lie. But anyway, the point is we just get so obsessed with the theater around people or people, and we miss the bigger things that are happening and we allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking that what doesn’t matter at all matters, that moral victories are all that matters. No, actually, facts on the ground victories matter more than anything. You certainly see it in this country. Black Lives Matter, for example, how many black people did that help? It hurt a lot of black people, but in the end, we should be able to measure it.

Moscow


(00:40:52)
How many black people have died by gunfire in the four years since George Floyd died? Well, the number’s gone way, way up and that was a Black Lives Matter operation, defund the police. So I think we can say as a factual matter, data-based matter, Black Lives Matter didn’t help black people and if it did tell me how. “Well, these are important moral victories.” I’m over that. That’s just another lie, a long litany of lies. So I try to see the rest of the world that way. But more than anything, I try to see world events through the lens of an American because I am one. And what does this mean for us? It’s not even the war, it’s the sanctions that will forever change the United States, our standard of living, the way our government operates. That more than any single thing in my lifetime screwed the United States. Levying those sanctions in the way that we did was crazy. For me, the main takeaway from my eight days in Moscow was not Putin. He’s a leader, whatever. None of them are that different actually, in my pretty extensive experience, no, it was Moscow. That blew my mind. I was not prepared for that at all and I thought I knew a lot about Moscow. My dad worked there on and off in the 80s and 90s because, a US government employee. And he was always coming back, “Moscow, it’s a nightmare,” and all this stuff, “no electricity.” I got there almost exactly two years after sanctions, totally cut off from Western financial systems, kicked out of Swift, can’t use US dollars, no banking, no credit cards. And that city just factually, I’m not endorsing the system, I’m not endorsing the whole country. I didn’t go to Lake Baikal. I didn’t go to Turkmenistan. I just went to Moscow, largest city in Europe, 13 million people. I drove all around it and that city is way nicer, outwardly anyway, I don’t live there, than any city we have by a lot.

(00:42:46)
And by nicer, let me be specific. No graffiti. No homeless. No people using drugs in the street. Totally tidy. No garbage on the ground. And no forest of steel and concrete soul- destroying buildings, none of the postmodern architecture that oppresses us without even our knowledge. None of that crap. It’s a truly beautiful city. That’s not an endorsement of Putin. By the way, it didn’t make me love Putin, it made me hate my own leaders because I grew up in a country that had cities kind of like that, that were nice cities that were safe, and we don’t have that anymore. How did that happen? Did Putin do that? I don’t think Putin did that actually. I think the people in charge of that, the mayors, the governors, the president, they did that and they should be held accountable for it.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:33)
I think cleanliness and architectural design is not the entirety of the metrics that matter when you measure a city.
Tucker Carlson
(00:43:41)
They’re the main metrics that matter. They’re the main metrics that matter. The main metrics that matter are cleanliness, safety, and beauty, in my opinion. And one of the big lies that we are told in our world is that, no, something you can’t measure that has no actual effect on your life matters most. Bullshit. What matters most, to say it again, beauty, safety, cleanliness, lots of other things matter too, a whole bunch of things matter. But if I were to put them in order, it’s not some theoretical, well, actually, I don’t know if you know that the Duma has no power. Okay, I get that. Freedom of speech matters enormously to me. They have less freedom of speech in Russia than we do in the United States. We are superior to them in that way. But you can’t tell me that living in a city where your 6-year-old daughter can walk to the bus stop and ride on a clean bus or ride in a beautiful subway car that’s on time and not get assaulted, that doesn’t matter.

(00:44:41)
No, that matters almost more than anything, actually. We can have both. The normal regime defenders and morons, John Stewart or whatever he’s calling himself, they’re like, “Whoa, that’s the price of freedom.” People shitting on the sidewalk is the price of freedom. It’s like you can’t fool me because I’ve lived here for 54 years, I know that it’s not the price of freedom because I lived in a country that was both free and clean and orderly. So that’s not a trade off I think I have to make. That is the beauty of being a little bit older because you’re like, no, I remember that, actually. It wasn’t what you’re saying. We didn’t have racial segregation in 1985. It was a really nice country that respected itself. I was here. I think with younger people, you can tell them that and they’re like, well, 1985 you were selling slaves in Madison Square Garden. It’s like, no, they weren’t. You’re going to Madison Square Garden and not stepping over a single fentanyl addict.
Lex Fridman
(00:45:34)
It is true, there doesn’t have to be a trade off between cleanliness and freedom of speech, but it is also true that in dictatorships, cleanliness and architectural design is easier to achieve and perfect, and often is done so you can show off, look how great our cities are while you’re suppressing-
Tucker Carlson
(00:45:54)
Of course, of course, I agree with that vehemently. This is not a defense of the Russian system at all. If I felt that way, I would not only move there, but I would announce I was moving there. I’m not ashamed of my views. I never have been. For all the people who are trying to impute secret motives to my words, I’m like the one person in America you don’t need to do that with. If you think I’m a racist, ask me and I’ll tell you.
Lex Fridman
(00:46:18)
Are you a racist?
Tucker Carlson
(00:46:20)
No. I am a sexist though.
Lex Fridman
(00:46:22)
Great
Tucker Carlson
(00:46:23)
Anyway. No, but if I was a defender of Vladimir Putin, I would just say I’m defending Vladimir Putin now. I’m not. I am attacking our leaders and I’m grieving over the low expectations of our people. You don’t need to put up with this. You don’t need to put up with foreign invaders stealing from you, occupying your kid’s school. Your kids can’t get an education because people from foreign countries broke our laws and showed up here and they’ve taken over the school. That’s not a feature of freedom, actually, that’s the opposite. That’s what enslavement looks like. I’m just saying, raise your expectations a little bit. You can have a clean, functional, safe country, crime is totally optional. Crime is something our leaders decide to have or not have.

(00:47:10)
It’s not something that just appears organically. I wrote a book about crime 30 years ago. I thought a lot about this. You have as much crime as you put up with, period. It doesn’t make you less free to not tolerate murder. In fact, it makes you unfree to have a lot of murders. But it makes me sad that people are like, “I can’t live in New York City anymore because of inflation and filth and illegal aliens and people shooting each other, but I’m glad because this is vibrant and strong and free.” It’s like that’s not freedom actually, at all.
Lex Fridman
(00:47:50)
Your point is well taken, you can have both. But do you regret-
Tucker Carlson
(00:47:55)
Had both. That’s the point, we had both, I saw it.
Lex Fridman
(00:47:57)
Do you regret to a degree using the Moscow subway and the grocery store as a mechanism by which to make that point?
Tucker Carlson
(00:48:06)
No. Look, I’m one of the more unself-aware people you will ever interview. So to ask me how will this be perceived, I literally have no idea and kind of limited interest. But I was so shocked by it. I was so shocked by it. To the extent I regret anything and to blame for anything, it would be not, and I’ve done this a lot, not giving it context, not fully explaining why are we doing this. The grocery store, I was shocked by the prices. And yes, I’m familiar with exchange rates, very familiar with exchange rates and I adjusted them for exchange rates, and this is two years into sanctions, total isolation from the west. So I would expect, in fact, I did expect until I got there that their supply chains would be crushed. How do you get good stuff if you don’t have access to western markets? I didn’t fully get the answer because I was occupied doing other things when I was there, but somehow they have and that’s the point. They haven’t had the supply chains problems that I predicted. In other words, sanctions haven’t made the country noticeably worse.

(00:49:22)
Okay, so again, this is commentary in the United States and our policymakers, why are we doing this? It’s forcing the rest of the world into a block against us called bricks. They’re getting off the US dollar. That will mean a lot of dollars are going to come back here and destroy our economy and impoverish this country. So the consequences, the stakes are really high. They’re huge and we’re not even hurting Russia. What the hell are we doing, one. On the subway, that Subway was built by Joseph Stalin right before the second World War. I’m not endorsing Stalin, obviously. Stalinism is a thing that I hate and I don’t want to come to my country. I’m making the obvious point that for over 80 years you’ve had these frescoes and chandeliers, maybe they’ve been redone or whatever, but somehow the society has been able to not destroy what its ancestors built, the things that are worth having, and there are a lot. Why don’t we have that?

(00:50:17)
Even on a much more terrestrial plane, why can’t I have a subway station like that? Why can’t my children who live in New York City ride the subway? A lot of people I know who live in New York City are afraid to ride the subway, young women especially. That’s freedom? No, again, it’s slavery. If Putin can do this, why can’t we? What? This is so obvious. I’m a traitor? Okay, so if I’m calling for American citizens to demand more from their government and higher standards for their own society, and remember that just 30 years ago, we had a much different and much happier and cleaner and healthier society where everyone wasn’t fat with diabetes at 40 from poisoned food, I’m not a traitor to my country, I’m a defender of my country. By the way, the people calling me a traitor, they’re all like, whatever. I would not say they’re people who put America’s interest first to put it mildly.
Lex Fridman
(00:51:16)
There’s many elements, like you said, you don’t like Stalinism. You’re a student of history, central planning is good at building subways in a way that’s really nice. The thing that accounts for New York subways, by the way, there’s a lot of really positive things about New York subways, not cleanliness, but the efficiency, the accessibility, how wide it spreads. The New York network is incredible.
Tucker Carlson
(00:51:44)
It is.
Lex Fridman
(00:51:45)
But Moscow, under different metrics, results of a capitalist system. And you actually said that you don’t think US is quite a capitalist system, which is an interesting question itself.
Tucker Carlson
(00:51:55)
That’s for sure. We have more central planning here than they do in Russia.
Lex Fridman
(00:51:57)
No, that’s not true.
Tucker Carlson
(00:51:58)
Of course it is.
Lex Fridman
(00:51:59)
You think that’s true.
Tucker Carlson
(00:52:00)
The climate agenda, of course. The US government has, in league with a couple of big, companies, decided to change the way we produce and consume energy. There’s no popular outcry for that. There’s never been any mass movement of Americans who’s like, “I hate my gasoline powered engine. No more diesel.” That has been central planning. That is central planning. You see it up and down our economy, there’s no free market in the United States. You get crossways with the government, you’re done. If you’re at scale, maybe if you’ve got a barbershop or a liquor store or something, but even then you’re regulated by politicians. And so, no, I actually am for free markets. I hate monopolies. Our economy is dominated by monopolies, completely dominated in-
Lex Fridman
(00:52:43)
What do you mean?
Tucker Carlson
(00:52:43)
Google. What percentage of search does Google have, 90? Google’s a monopoly, by any definition. Google is just rich enough to continue doing whatever it wants in violation of US law. There’s no monopoly in Russia as big as Google. I’m not, again, defending the Russian system. I’m calling for return to our old system, which was sensible and moderate and put the needs of Americans, at least somewhere in the top 10. Somewhere in the top 10. I’m not saying that standard oil was interested in the welfare of average Americans, but I am saying that there was a constituency in our political system, in the Congress, for example, different presidential candidates are like, “No, wait a second. What is this doing to people? Is it good for people or not?” There’s not even a conversation about that. It’s shut up and submit to AI. No offense. And so I’m just-
Lex Fridman
(00:53:33)
Offense taken. I’ll write, “We will get you.” When it’s strong enough-
Tucker Carlson
(00:53:38)
I have no doubt.
Lex Fridman
(00:53:39)
… you’ll be the first one to go.
Tucker Carlson
(00:53:40)
Well, as a white man, I just won’t even exist anymore.
Lex Fridman
(00:53:42)
Right, so much to say on that one.
Tucker Carlson
(00:53:44)
I bet when you Google my picture 20 years from now, I’ll be a Black chick. A hundred percent.
Lex Fridman
(00:53:50)
Well, I hope she’s attractive.
Tucker Carlson
(00:53:52)
I hope so too. It’d probably be an upgrade.
Lex Fridman
(00:53:57)
So, well, the central planning point is really interesting, but I just don’t know where you’re coming from. There’s a capitalist system … the United States is one of the most successful capitalist system in the history of earth. So just-
Tucker Carlson
(00:54:13)
It’s the most successful. I’m just saying that I think it’s changed a lot in the last 15 years and that we need to update our assumptions about what we’re seeing.
Lex Fridman
(00:54:21)
Sure.
Tucker Carlson
(00:54:21)
And that’s true up and down. That’s true with everything. It’s true with your neighbor’s children who you haven’t seen in three years and they come home from Wesleyan and you’re like, “Oh, you’ve grown.” That is true for the world around us as well. Most of our assumptions about immigration, about our economy, about our tax system are completely outdated if you compare them to the current reality. I’m just for updating my files and I have a big advantage over you because I am middle aged, and so I don’t-
Lex Fridman
(00:54:47)
You’ve called yourself old so many times throughout this conversation.
Tucker Carlson
(00:54:50)
I don’t trust my perceptions of things so I’m constantly trying to be like, is that true, I should go there. I should see it. I guess just in the end, I trust direct perceptions. I don’t trust the internet, actually. Wikipedia is a joke. Wikipedia could not be more dishonest, it’s certainly in the political categories or things that I know a lot about. Occasionally, I read an entry written about something that I saw or know the people involved, and I’m like, well, that’s a complete lie or you left out the most important fact. It’s not a reliable guide to reality or history and that will accelerate with AI, where our perception of the past is completely controlled and distorted. I think just getting out there and seeing stuff and seeing that Moscow was not what I thought it would be, which was a smoldering ruin, rats in a garbage dump, it was nicer than New York. What the hell?
Lex Fridman
(00:55:46)
Direct data is good, but it’s challenging. For example, if you talk to a lot of people in Moscow or in Russia, and you ask them, “Is there a censorship?” They will usually say, “Yes, there is.”
Tucker Carlson
(00:55:56)
Oh yeah, of course there is. Well, I agree. Just to be clear, I have no plans to move to Russia. I think I would probably be arrested if I moved to Russia. Ed Snowden, who is the most famous openness, transparency, advocate in the world, I would say along with Assange, doesn’t want to live in Russia. He’s had problems with the Putin government. He’s attacked Putin. They don’t like it. I get it. I get it. I’m just saying, what are the lessons for us? The main lesson is we are being lied to in a way that’s bewildering and very upsetting. I was mad about it all eight days I was there because I feel like I’m better informed than most people because it’s my job to be informed. I’m skeptical of everything and yet I was completely hoodwinked by it.

(00:56:46)
I would just recommend to everyone watching this, if you’re really interested, if you’re one of those people, and I’m not one, but who’s waking up every day and you’ve got a Ukrainian flag on your mailbox or whatever, your Ukrainian lapel pin, or this absurd theater, but if you sincerely care about Ukraine or Russia or whatever, why don’t you just hop on a plane for 800 bucks and go see it? That doesn’t occur to anyone to do that. I know it’s time consuming and kind of expensive, sort of, not really, but you benefit so much. I could bore you for eight hours, and I know you’ve had this experience, where you think you know what something is or you think you know who someone is, and then you have direct experience of that place or person and you realize all your preconceptions were totally wrong. They were controlled by somebody else. In fact, I won’t betray confidences, but off the air we were talking about somebody and you said, “I couldn’t believe the person was not at all what I thought.” Well, that’s happened to me-
Lex Fridman
(00:57:42)
In the positive direction.
Tucker Carlson
(00:57:43)
In the positive direction. By the way, for me, it’s almost always in that direction. Most people I meet, and I’ve had the great privilege of meeting a lot of people over all this time, they’re way better than you think, or they’re more complicated or whatever. But the point is, a direct experience unmediated by liars, there’s no substitute for that.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:04)
Well, on that point, direct experience in Ukraine. I visited Ukraine and witnessed a lot of the same things you witnessed in Moscow. First of all, beautiful architecture.
Tucker Carlson
(00:58:13)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:14)
This is a country that’s really in war. So it’s not-
Tucker Carlson
(00:58:17)
Oh, for real,
Lex Fridman
(00:58:18)
… for real. Where most of the men are either volunteering or fighting in the war, and there’s actual tanks in the streets that are going into your major city of Kyiv and still the supply chains are working-
Tucker Carlson
(00:58:32)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:32)
… just a handful of months after the start of the war. Everything is working. The restaurants are amazing. Most of the people are able to do some kind of job, like the life goes on. Cleanliness, like you mentioned.
Tucker Carlson
(00:58:49)
I love that.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:49)
Security, it’s incredible. The crime went to zero. They gave out guns to everybody, the Texas strategy.
Tucker Carlson
(00:58:58)
It does work.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:58)
When you witness it, you realize, okay, there’s something to these people. There’s something to this country that they’re not as corrupt as you might hear.
Tucker Carlson
(00:59:06)
Right.
Lex Fridman
(00:59:06)
You hear that Russia is corrupt, Ukraine is corrupt, you assume it’s just all going to go to shit.
Tucker Carlson
(00:59:12)
I haven’t been to Ukraine, and I’ve certainly tried. They put me on some kill him immediately list so I can’t. I’ve tried to interview Zelensky. He keeps denouncing me. I just want an interview with him, he won’t, unfortunately. I would love to do it.
Lex Fridman
(00:59:22)
I hope you do.
Tucker Carlson
(00:59:23)
I do too. But one of the things that bothers me most … I love to hear that, what you just said about Kyiv, but I’m not really surprised. One of the things that I’m most ashamed of is the bigotry that I felt towards Slavic people, also toward Muslims, I’ll just be totally honest because I lived through decades of propaganda from NBC news and CNN where I worked, about this or that group of people and they’re horrible or whatever. And I kind of believed it. I see it now, we can’t even put the word Russia at Wimbledon because it’s so offensive. Well, what does the tennis player have to do with it? Did he invade Ukraine, I don’t think he did. Stealing all these business guys yachts and denouncing thing was oligarchs, what do they have to do with it? Whatever.

(01:00:08)
Here’s my point. The idea that a whole group of people is just evil because of their blood, I just don’t believe that. I think it’s immoral to think that, and I can just tell you my own experience after eight days there. I think it’s a really interesting culture, Slavic culture, which is shared by the way, by Russian and Ukraine, of course, they’re first cousins at the most distant. I found them really smart and interesting and informed. I didn’t understand a lot of what they were saying. I don’t understand the way their minds work because I’m American, but it wasn’t a thin culture, it’s a thick culture and I admire that. I wish I could go to Ukraine. I would go tomorrow.

Freedom of speech

Lex Fridman
(01:00:49)
I think after you did the interview with Putin, you put a clip, I think on TCN, your analysis afterwards.
Tucker Carlson
(01:00:58)
It wasn’t much of an analysis.
Lex Fridman
(01:00:59)
No, but what stood out to me is you were talking shit about Putin a little bit. You were criticizing him.
Tucker Carlson
(01:01:04)
Why wouldn’t I?
Lex Fridman
(01:01:05)
It spoke to the thing that you mentioned, which is you weren’t afraid. Now, the question I want to ask is, it would be pretty badass if you went to the supermarket and made the point you were making, but also criticize Putin, right? Criticize that there is a lack of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Tucker Carlson
(01:01:23)
In the supermarket?
Lex Fridman
(01:01:25)
Yes.
Tucker Carlson
(01:01:26)
Oh, you mean if I also said that? Well, yeah, of course I think that. I guess part of it is that because I have such a low opinion of the commentariat in the United States and the news organizations, which really do just work for the US government, I really see them as I did Izvestia and Pravda in the 80s. They’re just organs of the government and I think they’re contemptible and I think the people who work there are contemptible. I say that as someone who knows them really well, personally. I think they’re disgusting. I’m a little bit cut off kind of from what people are saying about me because I’m not interested. But-
Tucker Carlson
(01:02:00)
Cut off kind of from what people are saying about me because I’m not interested. So I try not to be defensive like, “See, I’m not a tool of Putin.” But the idea that I’d be flacking for Putin when my relatives fought in the Revolutionary War, I’m as American as you could be, it’s like crazy to me. Anne Applebaum calls me a traitor. I’m like, “Okay.” It’s just so dumb. But no, of course, they don’t have… No country has freedom of speech other than us. Canada doesn’t have it. Great Britain definitely doesn’t have it. France, Netherlands, these are countries I spend a lot of time in, and Russia certainly doesn’t have it. So that’s why I don’t live there. I’m just saying our sanctions don’t work. That’s all I was saying.

(01:02:43)
We don’t have to live like animals. We can live with dignity. Even the Russians can do it. That’s kind of what I was saying. Even the Russians under Vladimir freaking Putin can live like this. No, it’s not a feature of dictatorship. That’s the most, I think, discouraging and most dishonest line by people like Jon Stewart who really are trying to prepare the population for accepting a lot less. He is really a tool of the regime in a sinister way, always has been like, “How dare you expect that? What are you, a Stalinist?” It’s like, no, I’m an American. I’m a decent person. I just want to be able to walk to the grocery store without being murdered. Is that too much? “Shut up, you don’t believe in freedom.” It’s really dark if you think about it.
Lex Fridman
(01:03:28)
So there is a fundamental way which you wanted Americans to expect more.
Tucker Carlson
(01:03:33)
You don’t have to live like this. We don’t have to live like this. You don’t have to accept it. You don’t. Everyone’s afraid in this country, they’re going to be shut down by the tech oligarchs or have the FBI show up at their houses or go to jail. People are legit afraid of that in the United States. My feeling is, so? Show a little courage. What is it worth to you for your grandchildren to live in a free prosperous country? It should be worth more than your comfort. That’s how I feel.
Lex Fridman
(01:04:02)
We should make clear that by many measures, you look at the World Press Freedom Index, you’re right. U.S. is not at the top. Norway is. U.S.’s score is 71.
Tucker Carlson
(01:04:15)
Norway is.
Lex Fridman
(01:04:15)
Same as Gambia in West Africa.
Tucker Carlson
(01:04:22)
Really? So let me just ask.
Lex Fridman
(01:04:22)
Hold on a second. Hold on a second. Hold on a second.
Tucker Carlson
(01:04:22)
Now you’re making me laugh.
Lex Fridman
(01:04:23)
Ukraine is 61 and Russia is 35, the lower it is, the worst. Close to China at 23, and North Korea at the very bottom, 22.
Tucker Carlson
(01:04:33)
Didn’t ukraine put Gonzalo Lira in jail until he died for criticizing the government? How can they have a high press?
Lex Fridman
(01:04:38)
Yes. That’s why they’re 61 out of [inaudible 01:04:40].
Tucker Carlson
(01:04:40)
What I’m saying, look, I don’t know what the criteria are they’re using to arrive at that, but I know press freedom when I see it. I try to practice it, which is saying what you think is true, correcting yourself when you’ve been shown to be wrong, as I have many times, being as honest as you can be all the time and not being afraid. Those are wholly absent in my country, wholly absent. People are afraid in the news business. I would know since I spent my life working there. They’re afraid to tell the truth. They’re under an enormous amount of pressure and a lot of them have little kids and mortgages, I’ve been there, so I have sympathy.

(01:05:14)
But they go along with things. You are not allowed, if you stand up at any cable channel, any cable channel in the United States and say, “Wait a second, how did the Ukrainian government throw a U.S. citizen into prison until he died for criticizing the Ukrainian government? We’re paying for that. That’s why it’s offensive to me. We’re paying for it. That happens all the time around the world, of course. But this is a U.S. citizen and we’re paying the pensions of Ukrainian bureaucrats. We are the Ukrainian government at this point. If you said that on TV on any channel, well, you’d lose your job for that.

(01:05:53)
Norway is at the top. Really, Norway? If I went to Norwegian television and said NATO blew up Nord Stream, which it did, NATO blew up Nord Stream, the United States government with the help of other governments blew up, committed the largest act of industrial terrorism in history, and by the way, the largest environmental crime, the largest emission of CO2, methane, could I keep my job? No. So how is that a free press?
Lex Fridman
(01:06:17)
Well, we don’t know that. I mean the whole point of this-
Tucker Carlson
(01:06:18)
In Norway?
Lex Fridman
(01:06:19)
Yes.
Tucker Carlson
(01:06:19)
Well, as a Scandinavian, and I can tell you they would not put up with that in Norway for a second.
Lex Fridman
(01:06:19)
It’s been a while.
Tucker Carlson
(01:06:24)
You’re deviating from the majority, no.
Lex Fridman
(01:06:26)
Well, deviating maybe is frowned upon, but-
Tucker Carlson
(01:06:31)
Frowned upon. Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(01:06:32)
But do you have the freedom to say it if you do deviate? That’s the question.
Tucker Carlson
(01:06:36)
Can you keep your job? That’s one measurement of it.
Lex Fridman
(01:06:38)
Can you keep your job, yeah.
Tucker Carlson
(01:06:39)
Yeah. It’s not the only measurement. Obviously being thrown into prison is much worse than losing your job. I’ve been fired a number of times for saying what I think, by the way. It’s fine. I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t mind being fired. I’ve always become a better person after it happened. But it is one measurement of freedom if you have the theoretical right to do something, but no practical ability to do it, do you have the right to do it? The answer is not really, actually.

Jon Stewart

Lex Fridman
(01:07:03)
You mentioned Jon Stewart, the two of you have a bit of a history. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but he kind of grilled your supermarket and subway videos. Have you got any chance to see it?
Tucker Carlson
(01:07:13)
I haven’t seen it, but someone characterized it to me, which is why I pivoted against it early in our conversation about how the price of freedom is living in filth and chaos.
Lex Fridman
(01:07:24)
Yeah, that was essentially it. So in 2004, that’s 20 years ago, Jon Stewart appeared on Crossfire, a show you hosted. That was kind of a memorable moment. Can you tell the saga of that as you remember it?
Tucker Carlson
(01:07:40)
I mean, for me, as I was saying to you before about how it takes a long time to digest and process and understand what happens to you, or at least it does for me, I didn’t understand that as a particularly significant moment while it was happening. I just got off a plane from Hawaii. I mean, I was out of it as usual, and I was very literal as usual. So from my perspective, his criticism of me, to the extent I remember it, was that I was a partisan. Well, he had two critiques. One that Crossfire was stupid, which it certainly was. In fact, I’d already given my notice and I was moving on to another company by that point.

(01:08:17)
Crossfire was stupid. Crossfire didn’t help. Crossfire framed everything as Republican versus Democrat, whatever. It was not helpful to the public discourse. I couldn’t agree more, and that’s why I left. So that was part of his critique, fair. I’m not sure I would’ve admitted it at the time because I worked there and it’s sort of hard to admit you’re engaged in an enterprise that’s fundamentally worthless, which it was. But his other point was that I was somehow a partisan or a mindless partisan, which is definitely not true. It is true of him. He is a mindless partisan, but I’m not.

(01:08:54)
I really haven’t been since I got back from Baghdad at the beginning of the Iraq War, and I realized that the Republican party, which I’d voted for my whole life to that point, and had supported in general, was pushing this really horrible thing that was going to hurt the United States, which in time it really did. The Iraq War really hurt the United States. I realized that I had been on the wrong side of that. I said so publicly immediately from Baghdad, I said that to the New York Times and I really meant it. I mean it now. So to call me partisan, you can call me stupid, you can call me wrong, I certainly had been wrong, but partisan, I just didn’t think it was a meaningful… I mean, that’s just not true. It’s the opposite of true.

(01:09:35)
So I didn’t really take it seriously at all, and I never thought much of him. So I was like, “Whatever. Some buffoon jumping around on my show grandstanding.” By the way, that happened right at the moment that YouTube began. I think that was one of the first big YouTube, it was one of the first big YouTube videos. So it had a virality that, if that’s a word, it went everywhere in a way that didn’t used to happen in cable news. I mean, by that point, that was 20 years ago as you point out, I’ve been in cable news for nine years. So before 2004, we would say something on television and then it would be lost. People could claim they heard it, but you’d have to go to I think the University of Tennessee at Knoxville archives to get it.

(01:10:23)
Suddenly everything we said would live forever on the internet, which is good, by the way. That’s not bad. But it was a big change for me, and I just couldn’t believe how widely that was discussed at the time, because I thought he was not an interesting person, I think he’s obviously a very unhappy person. I just didn’t take him seriously then and I don’t now. But so anyway, that was it. It was a smaller thing in my life at the time than other people imagined.
Lex Fridman
(01:10:54)
Okay, you said lot of words that will make it sound like you’re a bit bitter even if you’re not. So you said unhappy person, partisan person.
Tucker Carlson
(01:11:03)
Well, I think he’s an unhappy guy. Well, he’s definitely partisan for sure.
Lex Fridman
(01:11:05)
So can you elaborate why you think he’s partisan?
Tucker Carlson
(01:11:07)
Well, so I think that, and I see this a lot, not only on the left, but people who believe that whatever political debate they’re engaged in is the most important debate in the world. So they bring an emotional intensity to those debates, and they’re inevitably disappointed because no eternal question is solved politically. So they’re kind of on the wrong path and they’re doomed to frustration if they believe that, and many do. He certainly does, that whatever the issue is, so Clarence Thomas should not be Supreme Court justice, and the implication is, well, if someone else’s Supreme Court justice, we’ll live in a fair and happy society, but that’s just not… It’s a false promise.

(01:11:45)
So I think that people who bring that level of intensity to politics are, by definition, bitter, by definition, disappointed, bitter in the way the disappointed people are. That the real questions are like what happens when you die and how do the people around you feel about you? Those are not the only questions in life, but they’re certainly the most important ones. If we’re spending a disproportionate amount of time on who gets elected to some office, not that it’s irrelevant, it is relevant, but it’s not the eternal question. So I feel like he’s not the only kind of bitter silly person in Washington or in its orbit. There are many, and a lot of them are Republicans, so.

(01:12:24)
But I just thought it was ironic. I mean, everything’s ironic to me, but being called a Russia’s sympathizer by a guy who calls himself Boris, it just made me laugh. No one else has ever laughed at that. Boris Johnson’s real name is not Boris, as you know. He calls himself Boris. It’s his middle name. So if you call yourself Boris, you don’t really have standing to attack anyone else as a Russia defender, right? I think that’s funny. No one else, as I noted does. But Jon Stewart, there are a lot of things you could say about me, but he’s much more partisan than I am. So to call me a partisan, it’s like what?
Lex Fridman
(01:13:01)
He would probably say that he’s not a partisan, that he’s a comedian who’s looking for the humor and the absurdity of the system on both sides.
Tucker Carlson
(01:13:11)
He’s a very serious person. I will say this, and he shares this quality with a lot of comedians, I know a lot of comedians, I know a cross section of people just having done this job for a long time, and a lot of them are very serious about their views, and they have a lot of emotional intensity. He certainly is in that category. That’s the silliest thing. Yeah, he’s a comedian for sure. He can be very funny for sure. He has talent, no doubt about it. I’ve never denied that. But he’s motivated by his moral views, “This is right. That is wrong.” I just think that it’s a misapplied passion.
Lex Fridman
(01:13:48)
Do you think I’m just a comedian? Is-
Tucker Carlson
(01:13:52)
I don’t think any person thinks that. I mean, if you’re just a comedian, and I, look, I’m not trying to claim, I couldn’t claim that I haven’t said a lot of dumb things, and one of the dumbest things I ever said was when he was on our set lecturing me, he’s a moralizer, which I also don’t really care for as an aesthetic matter, but he was lecturing me about something and I said, “I thought you’re here to tell jokes.” Which I shouldn’t have said because he wasn’t there to tell jokes. He was there to lecture me, and I should have just engaged it directly rather than trying to diminish him by like, “You’re just a little comedian.” Well, he doesn’t see himself that way. But I would just say this, Jon Stewart’s a defender of power. Jon Stewart has never criticized… What’s Jon Stewart’s view on the aid we’ve sent to Ukraine, the $100 billion or whatever. What happened to that money? What happened to the weapons that it bought? He doesn’t care. He has the exact same priorities as the people permanently in charge in Washington. So whatever. He’s not alone in that. So does Mika Brzezinski and her husband and all the rest of the cast of dummies.

(01:14:59)
But if you’re going to pretend to be the guy who’s giving the finger to entrenched power, you should do it once in a while, and he never has. There’s not one time when he said something that would be deeply unpopular on Morning Joe. That’s all I’m saying. So don’t call yourself a truth teller. You’re a court comedian or a flatterer of power. Okay, that’s fine. There’s a role for that, but don’t pretend to be something else.
Lex Fridman
(01:15:23)
I’ll just be honest that I watched it just recently, that video and-
Tucker Carlson
(01:15:29)
From 20 years ago?
Lex Fridman
(01:15:29)
From 20 years ago. I watched it initially, and I remember it very differently. I remembered that Jon Stewart completely destroyed you in that conversation. I watched it and you asked a very good question of him, and there was no destruction, first of all. You asked a very good question of him, “Why when you got a chance to interview John Kerry, did you ask a bunch of softball questions?”
Tucker Carlson
(01:15:56)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(01:15:57)
I thought that was a really fair question. Then his defense was, “Well, I’m just a comedian.”
Tucker Carlson
(01:16:02)
So I thought that was disingenuous. I haven’t watched it. I never have watched the clip one time in my life, and I don’t like to watch myself on television. I never have. That’s my fault and I probably should force myself to watch it though, of course I never will. But I think the takeaway for me, which was really interesting and life-changing, was I agree with your assessment. I’ve lost a lot of debates. I’ve been humiliated on television. I’m not above that. It certainly happened to me. It will happen again. But I didn’t feel like it was a clear win for him at all. Maybe A TKO, but it was not a knockout at all, and yet it was recorded that way.

(01:16:41)
I remember thinking, “Well, that’s kind of weird. That’s not what I remember.” Then I realized, no, Jon Stewart was more popular than I was, therefore he was recorded as the winner. That was hard for me to accept, because that struck me as unfair. You should rate any contest on points. Here are the rules. We’re going to judge the contest in the basis of those rules. No, in the end, it’s just like the more popular guy wins. Every TV critic like Jon Stewart, every one of them hated me, therefore he won. I was like, “Wow, I guess I have to accept that reality.” You do, like the reality of the sunrise. You’re not in charge of it. So that’s just what it is.
Lex Fridman
(01:17:14)
Unfortunately it’s a bit darker, I think. The reason he’s seen as the winner and the reason at the time I saw as the “winner” is because he was basically shitting on you, like personal attacks versus engaging ideas. It was funny in a dark way and making fun of the bow tie and all this kind of stuff.
Tucker Carlson
(01:17:30)
That’s fair, the bow tie.
Lex Fridman
(01:17:31)
I understand.
Tucker Carlson
(01:17:32)
It was fair to call me a dick. I remember he called me a dick, and I remember even when he said that, I was like, “Yeah, I’m definitely a dick, and that’s not my best quality, trust me.”
Lex Fridman
(01:17:42)
I thought Jon Stewart came off as a giant dick at that time, and I’m a big fan of his, and I think he has improved a lot.
Tucker Carlson
(01:17:50)
That may be true.
Lex Fridman
(01:17:51)
So we should also say that people grow, people like-
Tucker Carlson
(01:17:54)
Well, I certainly have, or changed anyway. You hope it’s growth. You hope it’s not shrinkage, but-
Lex Fridman
(01:18:02)
It is cold outside.
Tucker Carlson
(01:18:03)
Yeah. I mean, look, I haven’t followed Jon Stewart’s career at all. I don’t have a television. I’m pretty cut off from all that stuff, so I wouldn’t really know. But the measure to me is, are you taking positions that are unpopular with the most powerful people in the world and how often are you doing it? It’s super simple. Not for its own sake, but do you feel free enough to say to the consensus, “I disagree.” If you don’t, then you’re just another toady. That’s my view.
Lex Fridman
(01:18:38)
Well, I think he probably feels free enough to do it, but you’re saying he doesn’t do it.
Tucker Carlson
(01:18:43)
On the big things. Look, the big things, this is my estimation of it, others may disagree, the big things are the economy and war, okay? The big things government does can be, I mean, there are a lot of things government does, government does everything at this point, but where we kill people and how and for what purpose and how we organize the economic engine that keeps the country afloat, those are the two big questions. I hear almost no debate about either one of them in the media, and I have dissenting views on both of them. I mean, I’m mad about the tax code, which I think is unfair.

(01:19:19)
The fact that we’ve a carried interest loophole in the tax code and people are claiming that their income is investment, income and they’re paying half the tax rate as someone who just goes to work every day, it discourages work. It encourages lending at interest, which I think is gross, personally. I’m against it. Sorry. The fact that we’re creating chaos around the world is the saddest thing that’s happening right now. Nobody feels free to say that. So that’s not good.

Ending the War in Ukraine

Lex Fridman
(01:19:48)
How do you hope the war on Ukraine ends?
Tucker Carlson
(01:19:50)
With a settlement, with a reasonable settlement. You know what a reasonable settlement is, which is a settlement where both sides feel like they’re giving a little, but can live with it. I mean, I was really struck in my conversation with Putin by how he basically refused to criticize Joe Biden and to criticize NATO. I will just be honest, as an American, it would be a little weird to be pissing on Joe Biden with a foreign leader, any foreign leader, even though I don’t think Joe Biden is a real person or really a president. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous. But still, he is the American president technically, and I don’t want to beat up on the American president with a foreigner. I just don’t. Maybe I’m old fashioned. So that’s how I feel.

(01:20:33)
So I didn’t push it, but I thought it was really interesting. Because, of course, Putin knows my views on Joe Biden. He knew I applied to the CIA, so they’ve done some digging on me, but he didn’t mention it, and he didn’t attack NATO. The reason is, I know for a fact, because he wants a settlement. He wants a settlement not because Russia’s about to collapse despite the lying of our media, that’s just not true, and no one is even saying it anymore because it’s so dumb. He wants to because it’s just bad to have a war. It changes the world in ways you can’t predict. People die. Everything about it is sad. If you can avoid it, you should.

(01:21:08)
So I would like to see a settlement where, look, the thing that Russia wants and I think probably has a right to is not to have NATO missiles on its border. I don’t know why we would do that. I don’t know what we get out of it. I just don’t even understand it. I don’t understand the purpose of NATO. I don’t think NATO is good for the United States. I think it’s an attack on our sovereignty. I would pull out of NATO immediately if I were the U.S. president, because I don’t think it helps the U.S. I know a lot of people are getting their bread buttered by NATO. But anyway, that’s my view as an American.

(01:21:43)
If I’m a Russian or a Ukrainian, let’s just be sovereign countries now. We’re not run by the U.S. State Department. We’re just our own countries. I believe in sovereignty, okay? So that’s my view. I also want to say one thing about Zelensky. I attacked him before because I was so offended by his cavalier talk about nuclear exchange because it would kill my family. So I’m really offended by that. Anyone who talks that way I’m offended by. But I do feel for Zelensky. I do. He didn’t run for president to have this happen.

(01:22:14)
I think Zelensky’s been completely misused by the State Department, by Toria Nuland, by our Secretary of State, by the policymakers in the U.S. who’ve used Ukraine as a vessel for their ambitions, their geopolitical ambitions, but also the many American businesses who’ve used Ukraine as a way to fleece the American taxpayer, and then by just independent ghouls like Boris Johnson who are hoping to get rich from interviews on it. The whole thing, Zelensky is at the center of this. He’s not driving history. NATO and the United States is driving history. Putin is driving history. There’s this guy, Zelensky. So I do feel for him, and I think he’s in a perilous place.
Lex Fridman
(01:22:53)
Do you think Zelensky is a hero for staying in Kiev? Because I do. To me, you can criticize a lot of things. You should call out things that are obviously positive.
Tucker Carlson
(01:23:07)
I just tried to a second ago, I don’t know the extent that he is in Kiev. He seems to be in the United States an awful lot, way too much. You can do a satellite interview. You don’t have to speak to my Congress. You’re not an American. Please leave. That’s my opinion but-
Lex Fridman
(01:23:21)
You got many zingers, Tucker.
Tucker Carlson
(01:23:22)
No, no, no. It’s just heartfelt. It’s bubbling up from the wellspring that never turns off. But I would say this about Zelensky, yeah, to the extent he’s in Ukraine, good man. George W. Bush fled Washington on 9/11. I lived there with three kids and he ran away to some Air Force base in South Dakota. I thought that was cowardly and I said so at the time, and man was I attacked for saying that. I wrote a column about it in New York Magazine where I then had a column, hard to believe. But I felt that. I felt that. I think the prerequisites of leadership are really basic.

(01:23:53)
The first is caring about the people you lead, that’s number one. In the way a father cares for his children, or an officer cares for his troops. A president should care for his people. That leads inexorably to the next requirement, which is bravery, physical courage. I believe in that. I’m not like some tough guy, but I just think it’s obvious. If you’re in charge, I’m at my house and I feel like someone broke in, I’m not going to say to my wife, “Hey, baby, go deal with the home invasion.” I’m going to deal with it because I’m dad. Okay? So if you’re the president of a country and your capital city is attacked, as ours was at the Pentagon, and you run away?

(01:24:28)
“The Secret Service told me to.” Bitch, are you in charge? Who’s daddy here? The Secret Service? Do you know what I mean? I found that totally contemptible and I said so, and man, did I get a lecture, not just from Republicans, but from Democrats. “Oh, you don’t know. Put yourself in that position.” I was like, “Okay.” I don’t know what I would do under that kind of stress, enormous stress. I get it. I know one thing I wouldn’t do is run away because you can’t do that. If you’re not willing to die for your country, then you shouldn’t be leading it. So yes, to the extent, if Zelensky really is in Ukraine most of the time, amen.
Lex Fridman
(01:25:05)
Well, hold on a second. Let’s clarify. It’s not about what he’s in Ukraine most of the time or not.
Tucker Carlson
(01:25:09)
Well, I thought that was the whole premise of the problem.
Lex Fridman
(01:25:11)
No, at the beginning of the war, when a lot of people thought that the second biggest military in the world is pointing its guns in Kiev, is going to be taken. A man, a leader who stays in that city and says, “Fuck it.” When everybody around him says, flee, everybody around him believes the city will be taken or at least destroyed, leveled, artillery, bombs, all of this, he chooses to stay. You know a lot of leaders, how many leaders would choose to stay?
Tucker Carlson
(01:25:46)
Well, the leader of Afghanistan, the U.S. backed leader when the Taliban came, got in a U.S. plane with U.S. dollars and ran away, and of course is living on those dollars now. So yeah, there’s a lot of cowardly behavior. Good for him. I mean, I guess I’m looking at it slightly differently, which is what’s the option? You’re the leader of the country. You can’t leave. Stalin never left Moscow during the war. It was surrounded by the Germans, as you know, for a year, and he didn’t leave. When I was in Russia, they’re like, “Stalin never left.” It’s like he’s the leader of the country, you can’t. I mean, that’s just table stakes, of course. I would say, but you raised an interesting by implication question, which is what about Kiev? You think the Russians couldn’t level Kiev? Of course, obviously they could. Why haven’t? They could, but they haven’t.
Lex Fridman
(01:26:36)
Well, there’s military answers to that, which is urban warfare is extremely difficult.
Tucker Carlson
(01:26:41)
Do you think that Putin wants to take Kiev?
Lex Fridman
(01:26:45)
No, I do think he expected Zelensky to flee and somebody else to come into power.
Tucker Carlson
(01:26:50)
Yeah, that may be totally right. I don’t know. I have no idea what Putin was thinking when he did that about Zelensky. I didn’t ask him. But it’s a mistake to imagine this is a contest between Putin and Zelensky. This is Putin versus the U.S. State Department. That’s why I said I felt sorry for him. I mean, as I said, we’re literally paying the pensions of Ukrainian bureaucrats. So there is no Ukrainian government independent of the U.S. government. Maybe you’re for that, maybe you’re against it, but you can’t endorse that in the same sentence that you use the term democracy, because that’s not a democracy, obviously.
Lex Fridman
(01:27:29)
Well, that’s why it’s interesting that he didn’t really bring up NATO extensively.
Tucker Carlson
(01:27:33)
He wants a settlement, he wants a settlement. He doesn’t want to fight with them rhetorically and he just wants to get this done. He made a bunch of offers at the peace deal. We wouldn’t even know this happened if the Israelis hadn’t told us. I’m so grateful that they did that, that Johnson was dispatched by the State Department to stop it. I mean, I think Boris Johnson is a husk of a man. But imagine if you were Boris Johnson and you spend your whole life with Ukraine flag, “I’m for Ukraine,” and then all those kids died because of what you did, and the lines haven’t really moved. It hasn’t been a victory for Ukraine. It’s not going to be a victory for Ukraine. It’s like, how do you feel about yourself if you did that? I mean, I’ve done a lot of shitty things in my life, I feel bad about them, but I’ve never extended a war for no reason. That’s a pretty grave sin in my opinion.
Lex Fridman
(01:28:26)
Yes, that was a failure. But it doesn’t mean you can’t have a success over and over and over keep having negotiations between leaders.
Tucker Carlson
(01:28:36)
Well, the U.S. government’s not allowing negotiations. So that for me is the most upsetting part. It’s like in the end, what Russia does, I’m not implicated in that. What Ukraine does, I’m not implicated in that. I’m not Russian or Ukrainian. I’m an American who grew up really believing in my country. I’m supporting my country through my tax dollars. It’s like I really care about what the U.S. government does because they’re doing it in my name, and I care a lot because I’m American. We are the impediment to peace, which is another way of saying we are responsible for all these innocent people getting dragooned out of public parks in Kiev and sent to go die. What? That is not good. I’m ashamed of it.

Nazis

Lex Fridman
(01:29:16)
What do you think of Putin saying that justification for continuing the war is denazification?
Tucker Carlson
(01:29:21)
I thought it was one of the dumbest things I’d ever heard. I didn’t understand what it meant. Denazification?
Lex Fridman
(01:29:26)
It literally means what it sounds like.
Tucker Carlson
(01:29:30)
Yeah. I mean, I have a lot of thoughts on this. I hate that whole conversation because it’s not real. It’s just ad hominem. It’s a way of associating someone with an evil regime that doesn’t exist anymore. But in point of fact, Nazism, whatever it was, is inseparable from the German nation. It was a nationalist movement in Germany. There were no other Nazis, right? There’s no book of Nazism like, “I want to be a Nazi. What does it mean to be a Nazi?” I mean, Mein Kampf is not Das Kapital, right? Mein Kampf is, to the extent I understand it, it’s like he’s pissed about the Treaty of Versailles, whatever. I’m very anti-Nazi. I’m merely saying there isn’t a Nazi movement in 2024. It’s a way of calling people evil.

(01:30:13)
Okay. Putin doesn’t like nationalist Ukrainians. Putin hates nationalism in general, which is interesting. Of course he does. He’s got 80 whatever republics, and he’s afraid of nationalist movements. He fought a war in Chechnya over this. So I understand it, but I have a different… I’m for nationalism, I’m for American nationalism, so I disagree with Putin on that. But calling them Nazis, it’s like, I thought it was childish.
Lex Fridman
(01:30:38)
Well, I do believe that he believes it.
Tucker Carlson
(01:30:40)
So that’s so interesting. I agree with that. Because I was listening to this because in the United States, everyone’s always calling everyone else a Nazi, “You’re a Nazi.” But I was listening to this and I was like, “This is the dumbest sort of not convincing line you could take.” I sat there and listened to him talk about Nazis for eight minutes, and I’m like, “I think he believes this.”
Lex Fridman
(01:31:02)
Yeah. Having had a bunch of conversations with people who are living in Russia, they also believe it. Now, there’s technicalities here, which the word Nazi, World War II is deeply in the blood of a lot of Russians and Ukrainians.
Tucker Carlson
(01:31:17)
I get it. I get it.
Lex Fridman
(01:31:17)
So you’re using it as almost a political term, the way it’s used in the United States also, like racism and all this kind of stuff. Because you know you can really touch people if you use the Nazi term.
Tucker Carlson
(01:31:29)
I think that’s totally right.
Lex Fridman
(01:31:30)
But it’s also to me a really disgusting thing to do.
Tucker Carlson
(01:31:35)
I agree.
Lex Fridman
(01:31:37)
Also to clarify, there is neo-Nazi movements in Ukraine but it’s very small. You’re saying that there’s this distinction between Nazi and neo-Nazi, sure. But it’s a small percentage of the population, a tiny percentage that have no power in government, as far I have seen no data to show they have any influence on Zelensky and Zelensky government at all. So really, when Putin says denazification, I think he means nationalist movements.
Tucker Carlson
(01:32:08)
I think you’re right. I agree with everything you said. I do think that the Second World War occupies a place in Slavic society, Polish society, Central Eastern Europe that it does not occupy in the United States. You can just look at the death totals, tens of millions versus less than half a million. So it’s like this eliminated a lot of the male population of these countries. So of course, it’s still resonant in those countries. I get it. I think I’ve watched, I don’t think I know, I’ve watched the misuse of words, the weaponization of words for political reasons for so long that I just don’t like, though I do engage in it sometime and I’m sorry, I don’t like just dismissing people in a word. “Oh, he’s a Nazi. He’s a liberal,” or whatever. It’s like, tell me what you mean, what don’t you like about what they’re doing or saying?
Tucker Carlson
(01:33:00)
What don’t you like about what they’re doing or saying? And Nazi especially, I don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about.
Lex Fridman
(01:33:07)
What troubled me about that is because he said that that’s the primary objective currently for the war. And that because it’s not grounded in reality, it makes it difficult to then negotiate peace. Because what does it mean to get rid of the Nazis in Ukraine? So he’ll come to the table and say, “Well, okay, I will agree to do a ceasefire once the Nazis are gone.” Okay, so can you list the Nazis?
Tucker Carlson
(01:33:34)
I totally agree. Plus, can you negotiate with a Nazi?
Lex Fridman
(01:33:36)
Right, exactly.
Tucker Carlson
(01:33:38)
I totally agree with you.
Lex Fridman
(01:33:39)
It was very strange. But maybe it perhaps had to do with speaking to his own population, and also probably trying to avoid the use of the word NATO as the justification for the war.
Tucker Carlson
(01:33:52)
Yes, that’s all… Of course, I don’t know, but I suspect you’re right on both counts. But I would say it points to something that I’ve thought more and more since I did that interview, which was two weeks ago, I guess. I didn’t think he was… As a PR guy, not very good, not good at telling his own story. The story of the current war in Ukraine is the eastward expansion of NATO scaring the shit out of the Russians with NATO expansion. Which is totally necessary, doesn’t help the United States, NATO itself doesn’t help the United States. And so I’m not pro-Russian for saying that, I’m pro-American for saying that. And I think that’s a really compelling story, because it’s true. He did not tell that story, he told some other story that I didn’t fully understand. Again, I’m not Russian.

(01:34:36)
He’s speaking to multiple audiences around the world. I’m not sure what he hoped to achieve by that interview, I will never know. But I did think that, this guy is not good at telling his story. And I also think honestly on the base of a lot… I mean, I know this. Very isolated during COVID, very.

(01:34:57)
We keep hearing that he’s dying of this or that disease, “He’s got ALS. I mean, I don’t know, I’m not his doctor. There’s a ton of lying about it, I know that. But one thing that’s not a lie, is that he was cloistered away during COVID, I know this, and only dealing with two or three people. And that makes you weird, it’s so important to deal with a lot of people to have your views challenged. And you see this with leaders who stay in power too long. He’s been in power 24 years, effectively. There’s been upsides I think for Russia, the Russian economy, Russian life expectancy, but there are definitely downsides. And one of them is you get weird, and you get autocratic, this is why we have term limits. Very few kings don’t get crazy in old age.
Lex Fridman
(01:35:44)
Yeah. And you said some of this also in your post-Kremlin discussion while you’re in Moscow still, which was very impressive to me, that you can just openly criticize. This was great.
Tucker Carlson
(01:35:56)
Well, I don’t care.
Lex Fridman
(01:35:57)
I understand this. I just wish you did some more of that also with the supermarket video, and perhaps some more of that with Putin in front of you.
Tucker Carlson
(01:36:06)
Putin in front of me, it would be like, “I’m such a good person.”
Lex Fridman
(01:36:10)
I know you see it as virtue signaling.
Tucker Carlson
(01:36:12)
Yeah, it is. Have you seen some of the interview he did with some NBC news child?
Lex Fridman
(01:36:17)
Yes, I understand. So I think you’re just so annoyed by how bad journalists are, that you just didn’t want to be them.
Tucker Carlson
(01:36:25)
Yeah, that’s probably right actually.
Lex Fridman
(01:36:27)
Some great conversations will involve some challenging. You were confused about denazification.
Tucker Carlson
(01:36:34)
Well, first of all, I accept your criticism, and I accept it as true, that in some way I’m probably pivoting against what I dislike. And I have such contempt for American journalists on the basis of so much knowledge, that I probably was like, “I don’t want to be like that.” Fair, that is a kind of defensiveness and dumb. So you’re right. As for the Nazi thing, I really felt like we were just speaking so far past each other that we would never come to… I was like, “I don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about.” And especially when I decided or concluded that he really meant it, I was like, “That’s just too freaking weird to me.” I can think of many other examples where you’re interviewing someone, and they’ll say something that’s like… I was interviewing a guy one time and he started talking about the Black Israelites and, “We’re the real Jews.” And it wasn’t on camera, but it was so far out to me that I was like, “We’ll never understand common terms on that.”

Putin’s health

Lex Fridman
(01:37:42)
So you mentioned there’s a bunch of conspiracy theories about Putin’s health. How was he in person? What did he feel like? Did he look healthy?
Tucker Carlson
(01:37:52)
I’m not a health person myself, so I can easily gain 30 pounds and not know it, so I’m probably not a great person to ask. But no, he seemed fine. He had his arm hooked through a chair, and I heard people say, “Well, he’s got Parkinson’s.” And Parkinson’s can be controlled I know for periods with drugs. So it’s hard to assess. One of the tells of Parkinson’s is gait, how a person walks, I think. And his walking seemed fine, and I walked around with him and talked to him off camera. He’s had some work done, for sure. He’s 71 or two.
Lex Fridman
(01:38:30)
You mean visual purposes?
Tucker Carlson
(01:38:32)
Yeah, I’m 54, he’s almost 20 years older than me, he looked younger than me.
Lex Fridman
(01:38:35)
What was that like? The conversation off camera, you walking around with him, what was the content of the conversation?
Tucker Carlson
(01:38:44)
I feel bad even with Putin or anybody talking about stuff that is off the record. But I’ll just say that when I said that he didn’t want to fight with NATO, or with the US State Department, or with Joe Biden because he wants a settlement, that’s a very informed perspective, he doesn’t. Say whatever you want about that, believe it or not, but that is true.
Lex Fridman
(01:39:16)
So he’s open for peace, for peace negotiation?
Tucker Carlson
(01:39:22)
Russia tried to join NATO in 2000, that’s a fact. Okay, they tried to join NATO. So just think about this, NATO exists to keep Russia contained. It exists as a bulwark against Russian territorial expansion. And whether or not Russia has any territorial ambitions is another question. Why would it, it’s the largest landmass in the world? Whatever. But that’s why it exists. So if Russia seeks to join NATO, it is by definition a sign that NATO’s job is done here, we can declare victory and go home. The fact that they turned him down is so shocking to me, but it’s true. Then he approaches the next president, George W. Bush… That was with Bill Clinton at the end of his term in 2000. He approaches the next president and said, “In our next missile deal, let’s align on this, and we’ll designate Iran as our common enemy.” Iran, which is now effectively in league with Russia, thanks to our insane policies.

(01:40:26)
And George W. Bush to his credit is like, “Well, that seems like kind of an innovative good idea.” And Condi Rice, who’s one of the stupidest people ever to hold power in the United States, if I can say. Who’s monomaniacally anti-Russia because she had an advisor at Stanford who was, or something during the Cold War, “No, we can’t do that.” And Bush is just weak and so he agreed, it’s like, “What? That is crazy.” If you’re fighting with someone and the person says, “You know what? Actually our interests align. And you’ve spent 80% of your mental disc space on hating me and opposing me or whatever, but actually we can be on the same team.” If you don’t at least see that as progress, what?

(01:41:06)
If your interest is in helping your country, what’s the counter argument? I don’t even understand it. And no one has even addressed any of this, “The war of Russian aggression.” Yeah, it was a war of Russian aggression, for sure. But how did we get there? We got there because Joe Biden and Tony Blinken dispatched Kamala Harris, who does not freelance this stuff, fair to say, to the Munich Security Conference two years ago this month, February 2022. And said in a press conference to Zelenskyy, poor Zelenskyy, “We want you to join NATO.” This was not in a backroom, this was in public at a press conference, knowing because he said it 4,000 times, “We don’t want nuclear weapons from the United States or NATO on our western border.” Duh. And days later, he invaded. So what is that?

(01:42:05)
And I raised that question in my previous job, and I was denounced as of course a traitor or something. But okay, great, I’m a traitor. What’s the answer? What’s the answer? Toria Nuland, who I know, not dumb, hasn’t helped the US in any way, an architect of the Iraq war, architect of this disaster, one of the people who destroyed the US dollar. Okay, fine, but you’re not stupid. So you’re trying to get a war by acting that way, what’s the other explanation? By the way, NATO didn’t want Ukraine because it didn’t meet the criteria for admission. So why would you say that? Because you want a war, that’s why. And that war has enriched a lot of people to the tune of billions. So I don’t care if I sound like some kind of left-wing conspiracy nut, because I’m neither left-wing nor a conspiracy nut. Tell me how I’m wrong.
Lex Fridman
(01:42:59)
Who do you think is behind it? If you were to analyze, zoom out, looking at the entirety of human history, the military industrial complex, you said Kamala Harris, is it individuals? Is it this collective flock that people are just pro-war as a collective?
Tucker Carlson
(01:43:17)
It’s the hive mind. And I spent my whole life in DC from 85 to 2020, so 35 years. And again, I grew up around it in that world. And I do think that conspiracies… Of course, there are conspiracies. But in general, the hive mind is responsible for the worst decisions. It’s a bunch of people with the same views, views that have not been updated in decades. Putin said something that I thought was absolutely true, I don’t know how he would know this, but it is true because I lived among them. So the Soviet Union dissolves in August of 91 on my honeymoon in Bermuda, I’ll never forget it. And it was a big thing, if you lived in DC.

(01:44:02)
I mean, the receptionist in my office in 1991 was getting a master’s in Russian from Georgetown, he was going to be a Sovietologist. And he was among thousands of people in Washington on that same track. And so the Soviet Union collapses, well, so does the rationale for a good portion of the US government, has been dedicated for over 40 years to opposing this thing that no longer exists. So there’s a lot of forward momentum, there’s a huge amount of money, the bulk of the money in the richest country in the world, aimed in this direction. And it’s very hard for people to readjust, to reassess. And you see this in life all the time.

(01:44:40)
I love my wife, all of a sudden she ran off with my best friend. Holy shit, I didn’t expect that this morning, now it’s a reality, how do I deal with that? Well, I got Stage 4 cancer diagnosis, and it’s all bad, but just saying that’s the nature of life. Things that you did not anticipate, never thought you’d have to face, happen out of nowhere, and you have to adjust your expectations and your goals. And people have a hard time with that, very hard time with that. So that’s a lot of it.

(01:45:09)
If you’re Condi Rice, sort of highly ambitious mid-wit, who gets this degree from Stanford, and you read Tolstoy in the original, sure you did. And you spent your whole life thinking that Russia is the center of evil in the world, it’s kind of hard to be like, “Well, actually there’s a new threat, and it’s coming from farther east. It’s primarily an economic threat.” And maybe all the threats aren’t reduced to tank battles, that’s the other thing. Is these people are so inelastic in their thinking, so lacking imagination and flexibility, that they can’t sort of imagine a new framework. And the new framework is not that you’re going to go to war with China over Formosa, Taiwan. No, the framework is that all of a sudden all the infrastructure in Tijuana is going to be built by China, and that’s a different kind of threat. But they can’t kind of get there because they’re not that impressive.
Lex Fridman
(01:46:07)
So you actually have mentioned this, it’s not just the Cold War, it’s World War II that populates most of their thinking in Washington. You mentioned Churchill, Chamberlain, and Hitler, and they’re kind of seeing the World War II as kind of the good war and successful role the United States played in that war. They’re kind of seeing that dynamic, that geopolitical dynamic, and applying it everywhere else still.
Tucker Carlson
(01:46:39)
Yeah, it’s a template for everything. And I think it’s of huge significance to the development of the West, to the civilization we live in now, to world history, was a world war. And so I think it’s worth knowing a lot about, and being honest about, and all the rest. But it’s hardly the sum total of human history, it’s a snapshot. And so you keep hearing people refer to… Not even the war, no one ever talks about the war. How much does Tony Blinken know about the Battle of Stalingrad? Probably zero, he doesn’t know anything. Largest battle in human history, but I bet he knows nothing. But he knows a lot about the cliches surrounding the ’38 to ’40 period, 1938 to 1940. And everything is kind of expressed through that formula. And not everything is that formula, that’s all I’m saying. And the Republicans have a strange weakness for it, particularly the closeted ones, the weird ones who have no life other than starting more wars. Everything to them, the most vulnerable, I would say, among them, emotionally, psychologically vulnerable, the dumbest, they will always say the same thing.

(01:47:57)
And it appeals to Republican voters, unfortunately. That every problem is the result of weakness. Everyone’s Chamberlain, Germany never would’ve gone in to Poland, Czechoslovakia if England had been stronger, that’s the argument. Is that true? I don’t know, actually. Maybe, it might be totally true, it might not be true at all, I really don’t know. But not everything is that, that’s not always true. If I go up to you in a bar and I say, “I hate your neck tie.” I’m being pretty aggressive with you, pretty strong. You might beat the shit out of me actually, or shoot me if I do that. An aggressive posture doesn’t always get you the outcome that you want. Sometimes it requires a more sophisticated Mediterranean posture. I mean, it kind of depends, it’s a time and place thing. And they don’t acknowledge that, everything is this same template, and that’s not the road to good decision making at all.

Hitler

Lex Fridman
(01:48:47)
Since we’re on the time period, let me ask you a almost cliche question, but it applies to you, which you’ve interviewed a lot of world leaders. If you had the chance to interview Hitler in ’39, ’40, ’41, first of all, would you do it? And how would you do it? I assume you would do it given who you are.
Tucker Carlson
(01:49:09)
Man, it would be a massive cost for doing it. It may destroy my life to interview Putin, though I can tell you as much as I want that I’m not a Putin defender, I only care about the United States. That’s 100% true, anyone who knows me will tell you what’s true, I keep saying it. But history may record me to the extent it records me at all as a tool of Putin, a hater of America. That seems absurd to me, but absurd things happen. What would I ask Hitler? I don’t even know. I guess I would probably ask him, what I asked Putin, which is what I ask everybody, “What’s your motive? Why did you do…” I mean, if he’d already gone into Poland, “Why are you doing that? What’s your goal?” And then the question is, is he going to answer honestly? I don’t know, you can’t make someone answer a question honestly. You can only sort of shut up while they talk and then let people decide what they think of the answer.
Lex Fridman
(01:50:05)
Well, just like in the bar fight, there’s different ways.
Tucker Carlson
(01:50:07)
There are different ways, that’s exactly right. Man, is that true? That is absolutely right.
Lex Fridman
(01:50:13)
I mean, your energy with Putin, for example, was such that it felt like he could trust you. I felt like he could tell you a lot. I think…
Tucker Carlson
(01:50:23)
I just wanted to get it on the record, that’s all I wanted.
Lex Fridman
(01:50:27)
I think it was a extremely… We have to acknowledge how important that interview was, for the record, and for opening the door for conversation. Opening the door to conversation literally is the path to more conversations in peace talks.
Tucker Carlson
(01:50:43)
Well, I would flip it around and say anyone who seeks to shut that down by focusing on a supermarket video of four minutes versus a two hour and 15 minute long interview with a world leader, anyone who doesn’t want more conversation, who wants fewer facts, fewer perspectives is totalitarian, and probably doesn’t have good intent. I mean, I can honestly say for all my many manifold faults, I’ve never tried to make people shut up. It’s not in me, I don’t believe in that.
Lex Fridman
(01:51:14)
So Putin’s folks have shown interest for quite a while to speaking with me. So you’ve spoken with him, what advice would you give?
Tucker Carlson
(01:51:26)
Oh, do it immediately. How’s your Russian, by the way?
Lex Fridman
(01:51:26)
Fluent.
Tucker Carlson
(01:51:30)
Have you kept up with it?
Lex Fridman
(01:51:31)
Yeah, fluent, so it would most likely be in Russian. So that’s the other thing is I do have a question about language barrier, was it annoying?
Tucker Carlson
(01:51:41)
It’s horrible. I mean, I don’t have much of a technique as an interviewer other than listen really carefully, that’s my only skill. I don’t have the best questions, I certainly don’t have the best questions. All I do that I’m proud of and that I think works is I just listen super carefully. I never let a word go by that I’m not paying… It exhausts me, actually. But you can’t do that in a foreign language because there’s a delay. And here, I’m just whining. But it’s real.
Lex Fridman
(01:52:11)
It’s not whining. Can you actually describe the technical details of that? Are you hearing concurrently at the same time?
Tucker Carlson
(01:52:20)
Yes, but there’s a massive lag. So what’s happening is… So the translators… So we were of course extremely uptight about the logistical details. So we brought our own cameraman who I’ve been around the world with, who worked at Fox, came with me now, amazing. And he did our cameras, lighting, everything, we had full control of that, and we had control of the tape. The Russians also had their own cameras, and I don’t know what they did with it. But we had full control of that, and we brought our own translator. We got our own translator, because I don’t trust anyone. So I think we had a good translator, we had two of them actually, because they get exhausted.

(01:53:01)
But the problem is, from my perspective, as someone who’s trying to think of a follow-up and listen to the answer, Putin will talk, and you can in part of your ear hear the Slavic sounds, and then over that is a guy with a Slavic accent speaking English. And then you can hear Putin stop talking, and then this guy’s answer goes on for another 15, 20 seconds. So it’s super disconcerting, and it’s really hard.

(01:53:28)
And the other thing is, it doesn’t matter how good your translators are. I’m interested in language, I speak only English fluently, but I’m really interested in language, and I work in language. It doesn’t matter how good your translator is, in literature and in conversation you miss so much if the language is moving… I mean, you see this in Bible study, you see it in Dostoevsky, you see it everywhere. If you don’t speak Aramaic, Hebrew, Russian, you’re not really getting… I mean, even in romance languages. I like Balzac, who obviously wrote in French. You read Père Goriot, it’s an amazing novel, hilarious, and you’re not really getting it. And it’s not that French and English are not that far apart. Russian, what?
Lex Fridman
(01:54:22)
Plus conversation. So the chemistry of conversation, the humor, the wit, the play with words, all this [inaudible 01:54:29].
Tucker Carlson
(01:54:28)
Exactly. And my understanding of Russian as a lover of Russian literature in English, is that it’s not a simple language at all. The grammar’s complex, there’s a lot that’s expressed that will be lost in the translation. So yes, I mean, the fact that you speak native Russian, I mean, I would run, not walk to that interview because I think it would just be amazing. You would get so much more out of it than I did.
Lex Fridman
(01:54:53)
And we should say that you’ve met a lot of world leaders, both Zelenskyy and Putin are intelligent, witty, even funny. So there’s a depth to the person that could be explored through a conversation just on that element, the linguistic element.
Tucker Carlson
(01:55:09)
For sure. And Putin speaks decent English, I spoke to him in English, so I know that, but he’s not comfortable with it at all. But Zelenskyy is, I think,
Lex Fridman
(01:55:18)
No, he is… Well, he’s better than Putin at English, but the humor, the wit, the intelligence, all of that is not quite there in English. He says simple points, but the guy’s a comedian, and he’s a comedian primarily in Russian, the Russian language. So the Ukrainian language is now used mostly primarily as a kind of symbol of independence.
Tucker Carlson
(01:55:42)
I’m aware of that, it’s a political decision. No, I know.
Lex Fridman
(01:55:45)
Really his native language is Russian language.
Tucker Carlson
(01:55:48)
Of course, as a lot of people in Ukraine.
Lex Fridman
(01:55:49)
But you can also understand his position, that he might not want to be speaking Russian publicly. That’s something I’ve…
Tucker Carlson
(01:55:54)
I don’t think they’re allowed to speak in Russian in some places in Ukraine. That’s one of the reasons that Russia was so mad, is that they were attacking language. And that’s a fair complaint, like, “What?” And by the way, if you haven’t been to Moscow in a while, you should see it, and you will pick up a million things that were invisible to me, and you should assess it for yourself. And my strong advice would be, even if you don’t interview Putin, go over there, spend a week there, and assess what you think. I mean, how restricted does the society feel? I mean, it would take a lot of balls to do this because… I mean, whatever you decide, you will be sucked into conversations that have nothing to do with you, political conversations. You’re obviously not a political activist, you’re an interviewer. But I think it would be so interesting.
Lex Fridman
(01:56:41)
But for an interview itself, is there advice you have about how to carry an interview? It is fundamentally different when you do it in the native language.
Tucker Carlson
(01:56:50)
Yes, I mean, I think I approached… And maybe I did it incorrectly, but this was the product of a lot of thought. I was coming into that interview aware that he hadn’t given an interview at all with anybody since the war started. So I had a million different questions, and as noted, I didn’t ask them because I just wanted to focus on the war. But I mean, there’s so many… I’ll send you my notes that I wrote, I was like a diligent little girl.
Lex Fridman
(01:57:18)
That would be amazing, but I think…
Tucker Carlson
(01:57:20)
All these questions, and some of them I thought were pretty funny.
Lex Fridman
(01:57:25)
In your case, I think the very fact of the interview was the most important thing.
Tucker Carlson
(01:57:29)
Yeah, that’s probably right. The question that I really wanted to ask that I was almost going to ask, because it made me laugh out loud. I was sitting drinking coffee beforehand with my producers, and I was like, “I’m going to go in there. My first question is going to be, Mr. President, I’ve been here in the Kremlin for two days preparing, and I haven’t seen a single African-American in a position of power in the Kremlin.” I thought that’s too culturally specific and dry. And he’d be like, “This guy’s freaking crazy.”
Lex Fridman
(01:57:59)
Yeah, you don’t want to open with humor.
Tucker Carlson
(01:58:03)
I know.
Lex Fridman
(01:58:03)
All right.
Tucker Carlson
(01:58:03)
Doesn’t translate.
Lex Fridman
(01:58:05)
It doesn’t. Oh, yeah, and there’ll be a small delay where you have to wait for the joke, to see if it lands or not.
Tucker Carlson
(01:58:10)
Like, “What? This is not America.”

Nuclear war

Lex Fridman
(01:58:12)
At Fox, you were for a time the most popular host. After Fox you’ve garnered a huge amount of attention as well, same, probably more. Do you worry that popularity and just that attention gets to your head, is a kind of drug that clouds your thinking?
Tucker Carlson
(01:58:33)
You think? I live in a spiritual graveyard of people killed by the quest for fame. Yes, I have lived in it. I mean, I would say the two advantages I have. One, I Have a happy family, and a stable family, and a stable group of friends, which is just the greatest blessing, and a strong love of nature that my family shares. So I’m in nature every day. And I have a whole series of rituals designed to keep me from becoming the asshole that I could easily become. But no, of course, I mean, that’s what I… And I don’t want to beat up on… I’m grateful to Elon who gave me a platform, and I mean that sincerely. But I definitely don’t spend a lot of time on social media or on the internet, for that exact reason. Well, first of all, I think it’s, as I’ve said, a much more controlled environment than we acknowledge, and I don’t want lies in my head. But I also don’t want to become the sort of person who’s seeking the adulation of strangers, I think that’s soul poison.

(01:59:42)
And I said earlier that I think that the desire for power and money will kill you, and I believe that, and I’ve seen it a lot. But I also think the desire for the love of people you don’t know is every bit as poisonous, maybe more so. And so, yes. And it’s not just because I’ve obviously spent most of my life in public. And in fact, I don’t spend my life in public, and I’m a completely private person. But professionally, I’ve spent my life in public. It’s not just that, it’s social media makes everybody into a cable news host. And we were talking off the air, my new… I’m obsessed with this. I don’t know enough about it, but here’s what I do know. South Korea, amazing country, great people. I grew up around Koreans, probably no group, if I can generalize about a group, that I like more than Koreans, are just smart, funny, honest, brave. I really like Koreans, I always have, my whole life, growing up in sunny California with Koreans.

(02:00:39)
South Korea is dying, it’s literally dying. It’s way below replacement rate in fertility, its suicide rate is astronomical. Why is that? It’s a rich country. Of course, I don’t know the answer. But I suspect it has something to do with the penetration of technology into South Korean society, is I think certainly one of the highest in the world, people live online there. And there was a belief for a bunch of reasons in South Korea that western technology would be a liberating progressive force, and I think it’s been the opposite. It’s my sense, strong sense. And I think it’s true in this country too. And I don’t understand how people can ignore the decline in life expectancy or the rise in fentanyl use. It’s not just about China shipping precursor chemicals to Mexico, it’s like, “Why would you take that shit?”
Lex Fridman
(02:01:28)
I hope those two things aren’t coupled, technological advancement and the erosion…
Tucker Carlson
(02:01:33)
Well, let me ask you… And I know you’re a technologist and I respect it, and there’s a lot about technology that I like and have benefited from. I had back surgery and it worked. Okay, so I’m not against all technology. But can you name a big technology in the last 20 years that we can say conclusively has improved people’s lives?
Lex Fridman
(02:01:52)
Well, conclusive is a tough thing.
Tucker Carlson
(02:01:54)
Pretty conclusively, that we can brag about.
Lex Fridman
(02:01:58)
Well, you’ve criticized Google search recently, but I think making the world knowledge accessible to anyone anywhere across the world through Google search.
Tucker Carlson
(02:02:08)
Well, I love that, I love that idea. Are people better informed or are they more superstitious and misled than they were 20 years ago? It’s not close.
Lex Fridman
(02:02:17)
Well, no, I don’t know, I think they are more informed. It’s just revealing the ignorance. The internet has revealed ignorance that people have, but I think the ignorance has been decreasing gradually. And if you look, you can criticize places like Wikipedia a lot, and very many aspects of Wikipedia are very biased. But most of it are actually topics that don’t have any bias in them, because they’re not political or so on, there’s no battle over those topics. And most of Wikipedia is the fastest way to learn about a thing.
Tucker Carlson
(02:02:49)
I couldn’t agree more. You can very quickly imagine… You’re an expert, and that may be the problem, I think. No, I just experienced it in Moscow. Again, I feel like I’m in the top 1% for information, certainly intake, because it’s my job. And I had literally… And I’m always out of the country, I’ve been around the world many times. I feel like I know a lot about the rest of the world, or I thought I did. And how did I not know any of that? And maybe I’m just unusually ignorant or something, or reading the wrong things. I don’t know what it was, but all I know is the digital information sources that I use to understand just something as simple as, what’s the city of Moscow like? Were completely inadequate. And anyway, look, I just am worried that we’re missing the obvious signs. And the obvious signs are reproduction, life expectancy, sobriety. If you have a society where people just can’t deal with being sober, don’t want to have children, and are dying younger, you have a suicidal society.
Tucker Carlson
(02:04:00)
…An extremely sick, you have a suicidal society. And I’m not even blaming anyone for it. I’m just saying objectively that is true. And the measure of a health of your society is the number of children that you have and how well they do. It’s super simple. That’s the next generation. We all die and what replaces us? And if you don’t care, then you’re suicidal. And maybe other things too. But that’s all I’m saying. So what happened to South Korea? Why can’t anyone answer the question? They’re great people, they’re rich, they have all these advantages. They’re on the cutting edge of every American… For a foreign country, they’re more American than maybe any other country other than Canada. And what happened?
Lex Fridman
(02:04:45)
And I mean, your fundamental worry is the same kind of thing might be happening or will happen in the United States.
Tucker Carlson
(02:04:50)
Well, let me just ask you this. I think North Korea seems like the most dystopian, horrible place in the world, right? Obviously it’s a byword for dystopia, right? North Korean. I use it all the time. And I mean it. If in a hundred years there are more North Koreans still alive than there are South Koreans, what does that tell us?
Lex Fridman
(02:05:09)
Yeah, that’s something to worry about. But also-
Tucker Carlson
(02:05:11)
But how did it happen? But why? I’m interested in the why. This is a question I asked Putin. Sometimes we don’t know why, but why does no one ask why?
Lex Fridman
(02:05:20)
I’ve seen a lot of increased distrust in science, which is deserved in many places. It just worries me because some of the greatest inventions of humanity come from science and technological innovation.
Tucker Carlson
(02:05:35)
Okay, then let me ask you a couple quick questions and perhaps you have the answer. I’ve always assumed that was true. And I should say that when I was a kid, I lived in La Jolla, California, next to the Salk Institute named after Jonas Salk, a resident of La Jolla, California, who created the polio vaccine and saved untold millions. And so my belief, which is still my belief, actually, that’s a great thing. It’s one of the great additions to human flourishing ever. But if technology is so great, why is life expectancy going down? And why are fewer people having kids? And why would anybody who has internet access ever use fentanyl? What is that? What is going on? And until we can answer that question, I think we have to assume the question of whether technology is a net good or a net bad is unresolved at best. Right?
Lex Fridman
(02:06:25)
At best, perhaps. But technology is the very tool which will allow us to have that kind of discourse to figure out to do science better.
Tucker Carlson
(02:06:33)
I mean, I want that to be true. And when you said that the internet allows people to escape the darkness of ignorance, man, that resonated with me because I felt that way in 1993, 4 when it was first starting, and I first got on it and I thought, man, this is amazing. You can talk for free to anyone around the world. This is going to be great. But let me just ask you this. This is something I’ve never gotten over or gotten a straight answer to. Why is it that in any European city, the greatest buildings indisputably were built before electricity and the machine age? Why has no one ever built a medieval cathedral in the modern era ever?
Lex Fridman
(02:07:10)
Well-
Tucker Carlson
(02:07:10)
What is that?
Lex Fridman
(02:07:12)
…Indisputably? You have a presumption. We have a good definition wat beauty is. There’s a lot of people-
Tucker Carlson
(02:07:18)
Right. Let’s be specific. Pick a European city or any city in the world and tell me that there’s a prettier building than say Notre Dame before it was set fire to.
Lex Fridman
(02:07:28)
There’s other sources of prettiness and beauty.
Tucker Carlson
(02:07:30)
Purely in architecture. Of course. Trees are prettier than any building in my opinion. So I agree with you there.
Lex Fridman
(02:07:35)
Well, but also there could be, I grew up in the pre-internet age, but-
Tucker Carlson
(02:07:36)
Good.
Lex Fridman
(02:07:41)
Good. But if you grew up in the internet age, I think your eyes would be more open to beauty that’s digital. That is in a digital-
Tucker Carlson
(02:07:50)
I’m not discounting the possibility of digital beauty at all. And the Ted Kaczynski in me wants to, but that’s too close-minded. I agree. I’m completely willing to believe there is such a thing as digital beauty. I mean, I have digital pictures of my phone, of my dogs and kids. So I know that there is, but purely in the realm of architecture because it’s limited, and it is one of the pure expressions of human creativity. We need places to live and work and worship and eat. And so we build buildings and every civilization has, but the machine age, the industrial age seemed to have decreased the quality and the beauty in that one expression of human creativity, architecture. And why is that?
Lex Fridman
(02:08:35)
Well, I could also argue that I’m a big sucker for bridges and modern bridges can give older bridges a run for their money.
Tucker Carlson
(02:08:44)
I like bridges too. So I agree with you, sort of. But the Brooklyn Bridge… I don’t know that there’s any modern bridges that was built in late-
Lex Fridman
(02:08:54)
19th century.
Tucker Carlson
(02:08:56)
…19th century. Very much in the industrial age. But I’m just saying the great cathedrals of Europe-
Lex Fridman
(02:09:01)
Sure, yeah.
Tucker Carlson
(02:09:02)
Even the pyramids, whoever built them. It seems like it’s super obvious. I’m dealing on the autism level here, just like, well, why is that? But that’s a good way to start. If all of a sudden you have electricity and hydraulics and you have access to… I mean, I have machines in my wood shop at home that are so much more advanced than anything. Any cathedral builder in 15th century Europe had. And yet there’s neither I nor anyone I know could even begin to understand how a flying buttress was built. And so what is that?
Lex Fridman
(02:09:40)
And the other question is also consider that whatever is creating this technology is unstoppable.
Tucker Carlson
(02:09:47)
Well, there’s that.
Lex Fridman
(02:09:48)
And the question is how do you steer it then? You have to look in a realist way at the world and say that if you don’t, somebody else will. And you want to do it in a safe way. I mean, this is the Manhattan Project.
Tucker Carlson
(02:10:02)
Was the Manhattan Project a good idea, to create nuclear weapons? That’s an easy call. No.
Lex Fridman
(02:10:06)
For me, it’s an easy call in retrospect. In retrospect, yes. Because it seems like it stopped world wars. So the mutually assured destruction seems to have ended wars. Ended major military conflict.
Tucker Carlson
(02:10:19)
Well it’s been what, 80 years? Not even 80 years, 79. And so we haven’t had a world war in 79 years. But one nuclear exchange would of course kill more people than all wars in human history combined.
Lex Fridman
(02:10:37)
Your saying 79 makes it sound like you’re counting.
Tucker Carlson
(02:10:40)
I am counting. Because I think it obviously, it’s completely demonic and everyone pretends like it’s great. Nuclear weapons are evil.
Lex Fridman
(02:10:47)
Yeah, no, absolutely.
Tucker Carlson
(02:10:48)
The use of them is evil, and the technology itself is evil. And in my opinion, I mean, it’s like if you can’t, that’s just so obvious. And what I’m saying is I’m not against all technology. I took a shower this morning. It was powered by an electric pump, heated by a water heater. I loved it. I sat in an electric sauna. I’m not against all technology, obviously, but the mindless worship of technology?
Lex Fridman
(02:11:16)
Mindless worship of anything is pretty bad.
Tucker Carlson
(02:11:18)
But I’m just saying, so you said, let’s approach this from a realist perspective. Okay, let’s. If we think that there is a reasonable or even a potential chance it could happen, maybe on the margins, let’s assign it a 15% chance, that AI, for example, gets away from us, and we are now ruled by machines that may actually hate us. Who knows what they want. Why wouldn’t we use force to stop that from happening? So you’re walking down the street in midtown Manhattan, it’s midnight. You’ve had a few drinks, you’re coming from dinner, you’re walking back to your apartment. A guy, a very thuggish looking guy, young man, approaches you. He’s 50 feet away. He pulls out a handgun, he lifts it up to you. You also are armed.

(02:12:02)
Do you shoot him or do you wait to get shot? Because all the data, look, he hasn’t shot you. He’s not committed a crime other than carrying a weapon in New York City. But maybe he’s got a license. You don’t know. It could be legal, but he’s pointing a gun at you. Is it fair to kill him before he kills you, even though you can’t prove that he will kill you?
Lex Fridman
(02:12:22)
If I knew my skills with a gun because he already has the gun out.
Tucker Carlson
(02:12:26)
Right, but it turns out that you have some confidence in your ability to stop the threat by force. Are you justified in doing that?
Lex Fridman
(02:12:33)
I just like this picture. Am I wearing a cowboy hat? No.
Tucker Carlson
(02:12:36)
No. But you are wearing cowboy boots and they’re clicking on the cobblestones. Actually, you’re in the meat packing.
Lex Fridman
(02:12:40)
Okay, great. I like this picture. I’m just, I think about this a lot, no. Yeah, I understand your point. But also I think that metaphor falls apart if there’s other nations at play here. Same as with the nuclear bomb. If US doesn’t build it, will other nations build it? The Soviet Union build it. China or Nazi Germany.
Tucker Carlson
(02:13:08)
We faced this. I mean, we faced this and the last president to try and keep in a meaningful way nuclear proliferation under control was John F. Kennedy. And look what happened to him.
Lex Fridman
(02:13:20)
But what’s your suggestion? Was it inevitable?
Tucker Carlson
(02:13:24)
Well, hold on. Well, their position in 1962 was no, it’s absolutely not inevitable. Or perhaps it’s inevitable in the sense that our death is inevitable as human beings, but we fight against the dying of the light anyway, because that’s the right thing to do. No, we were willing to use force to prevent other countries from getting the bomb because we thought that would be really terrible. We acknowledged that while there were upsides to nuclear weapons, just like there are upsides to AI, the downside was terrifying in the hands of… I mean, that’s the thing that I kind of don’t get. It’s like the applications of that technology in the hands of people who mean to do harm and destroy. It’s so obviously terrifying.
Lex Fridman
(02:14:06)
It’s not so obvious to me. What I’m terrified about is probably similar thing that you’re terrified about, is using that technology to manipulate people’s minds. That’s much more reasonable to me as an expectation, a real threat that’s possible in the next few years.
Tucker Carlson
(02:14:21)
But what matters more than that?
Lex Fridman
(02:14:23)
Well, I think that could lead to destruction of human civilization through other humans, for example, starting nuclear wars.
Tucker Carlson
(02:14:30)
Yeah. Well, I mean, this is one of the reasons I wasn’t afraid in the Vladimir Putin interview. It’s all ending anyway. You know what I mean?
Lex Fridman
(02:14:39)
Yeah. Well-
Tucker Carlson
(02:14:39)
Might as well dance on the deck of the Titanic. Don’t be a pussy. Enjoy it.
Lex Fridman
(02:14:43)
I think we will forever fight against the dying of the light as the entirety of the civilization.
Tucker Carlson
(02:14:49)
Someone the other day said that Biden ascribed that to Churchill. That was a Churchill quote. That’s kind of what I’m saying. It’s like if you live in a society where people don’t read anymore, people are by definition much more ignorant, but they don’t know it. I do think the Wikipedia culture, and I think there are cool things about Wikipedia, certainly its ease of use is high and that’s great, but people get the sense that like, oh, I know a lot about this or that or the other thing. And it’s like the key to wisdom, again, the key to wise decision making is doing what you don’t know. And it’s just so important to be reminded of what a dummy you are and how ignorant you are all the time. That’s why I like having daughters. It’s like it’s never far from mind how flawed I am. And that’s important.
Lex Fridman
(02:15:39)
In the same way I hope to be a dad one day.
Tucker Carlson
(02:15:42)
You should have a ton of kids. Are you going to have a ton of pups?
Lex Fridman
(02:15:44)
Five… Oh pup, you mean kids?
Tucker Carlson
(02:15:46)
Children.
Lex Fridman
(02:15:47)
Yes. But also I’ve been thinking of getting a dog, but unrelated. I would love to have five or six kids. Yeah, for sure.
Tucker Carlson
(02:15:53)
Have you found a victim yet?
Lex Fridman
(02:15:57)
You make it sound so romantic, Tucker.
Tucker Carlson
(02:15:59)
I’m just joking. I love it. No, you should totally do that.
Lex Fridman
(02:16:03)
Yeah, 100%. But also in terms of being humble, I do jiu-jitsu. It’s a martial art where you get your ass kicked all the time.
Tucker Carlson
(02:16:10)
I love that.
Lex Fridman
(02:16:10)
It’s nice to get your ass kicked. Physical humbling is unlike anything else, I think, because we’re kind of monkeys at heart and just getting your ass kicked just really helpful.
Tucker Carlson
(02:16:20)
I agree. I’ve had it happen to me twice.
Lex Fridman
(02:16:23)
Twice is enough.
Tucker Carlson
(02:16:24)
It got me to quit drinking. I was good at starting fights. Not good at winning them, but no, I completely agree with that.

Trump

Lex Fridman
(02:16:31)
Let me ask you, you’ve been pretty close with Donald Trump. Your private texts about him around the 2020 election were made public in one of them. You said you passionately hate Trump. When that came out, you said that you actually no, you love him. So how do you explain the difference?
Tucker Carlson
(02:16:53)
My texts reflect a lot of things, including how I feel at the moment that I sent them. That specific text I happen to know since I had to go through it forensically during my deposition in a case I was not named in. I had nothing to do with whatsoever. It’s crazy how civil suits can be used to hurt people you disagree with politically. But I was mad at a very specific person. I mean, really I, you’re asking me, I’ll tell you exactly what that was. It was the second the election ended and they stopped voting, stopped the vote counting on election night. I was like, well, this is, and it’s all now mail-in ballots and electronic voting machines. I was like, that’s a rigged election. I thought that then, I think now. Now it’s obvious that it was. But at the time I was like, “I feel like that was crazy what just happened”.

(02:17:40)
I want, but I don’t want to go on TV and say that’s a rigged election because I don’t have any evidence it’s a rigged election. You can’t do that. It’s irresponsible and it’s wrong. So I was like, the Trump campaign was making all these claims about this or that fraud. So I was trying my best to substantiate them, to follow up on it. Everyone was like, “Shut up, Trump, you lost. Go away. We’re going to indict you.” But I felt like my job was to be like, no, the guy’s, he’s president, he’s claiming the election just got stolen and he’s making these claims. Let’s see if we can… Well, the people around him were so incompetent. It was just absolutely crazy. And so I called a couple of times, I finally give up, but I’d call and be like, “All right, you guys claim that these inconsistencies and this whatever, this happened, give me evidence and I’ll put it on TV.” It’s my job to bring stuff that is not going to be aired anywhere else to the public. It was insane how incompetent and unserious-
Lex Fridman
(02:18:37)
So they weren’t able to provide like-
Tucker Carlson
(02:18:39)
Here’s the point of the story and of that text. So then they come out and they say, well, dead people voted. Well, that’s just an easy call. If a dead person voted, we can prove someone’s dead. Because being dead is one of the few things we’re good at verifying because you start to smell and there’s a record of it. It’s called the death certificate. So it was like, give me the names of people who are dead who voted, and then we can get their registration and we can show they voted. Five names. So I go on TV and I say this Caroline Johnson, 79 of Waukegan, Illinois voted. Here’s her death certificate. She died. And the campaign sends me this stuff. Now in general, I don’t take stuff directly from campaigns.

(02:19:19)
Because they all lie, because their job is to get elected or whatever. So I’m very wary of campaigns having been around it for 30 years, but I made an exception to my rule and I got a bunch of stuff from them. Well, of the six names, two of them are still alive. What? I immediately corrected it the next night. CNN did a whole segment on how I was spreading disinformation, which I was by the way. In this one case, they were right. I was so mad. I was like, “I hate you. I’m not talking about you. I’m so mad.” Anyway, that’s the answer. That’s what that was.
Lex Fridman
(02:19:56)
Who were you texting to?
Tucker Carlson
(02:19:57)
My producer and I was venting. It’s like a producer I was really close to, and I’ve known him for a long time. He’s really smart. And he’s like, he was someone I could be honest with. And I was like, and by the way, it was so funny. I mean now I’m doing what was me, which I will keep to a minimum, but it’s like stealing someone’s texts? And by the way, I was an idiot. I should have said, “Come and arrest me. I’m not giving you my freaking text messages.”

(02:20:22)
But I got bullied into it by a lawyer… I didn’t get bullied into it. I was weak enough to agree with a lawyer. It was my fault. Never should have done that. “Fuck you. They’re my texts.” I’m not even named in this case. That’s what I should have said, but I didn’t. I said I was mad on the air the next day, but not in language that colorful, but whatever. I try to be transparent. I mean, I also think, by the way, if you watch someone over time, you don’t always know what they really think, but you can tell if someone’s lying. You can sort of feel it in people. And I have lied. I’m sure I’ll lie again. I don’t want to lie. I don’t think I’m a liar. I try not to be a liar. I don’t want to be a liar. I think it’s really important not to be a liar.
Lex Fridman
(02:21:12)
You said nice things about me earlier. I’m starting to question. I have questions. I have a lot of questions, Tucker.
Tucker Carlson
(02:21:18)
I hate Lex Fridman.
Lex Fridman
(02:21:20)
Yeah. I’m going to have to see your texts after this.
Tucker Carlson
(02:21:24)
My texts are so uninteresting now. It’s like crazy how uninteresting they are.
Lex Fridman
(02:21:28)
Emojis and gifs.
Tucker Carlson
(02:21:29)
Yeah, lots of dog pictures.
Lex Fridman
(02:21:30)
Nice. You said some degree the election was rigged. Was it stolen?
Tucker Carlson
(02:21:37)
It was a hundred percent stolen. Are you joking?
Lex Fridman
(02:21:40)
It was rigged to that large of a degree?
Tucker Carlson
(02:21:42)
Yeah. They completely change the way people vote right before the election on the basis of COVID, which had nothing to do with-
Lex Fridman
(02:21:49)
So in that way it was rigged, meaning manipulated.
Tucker Carlson
(02:21:52)
One hundred percent. Then you censor the information people are allowed to get, anyone who complains about COVID… Which is like, by the way, it might’ve hurt Trump. But I mean it’s like whatever. I mean you could play it many different ways. You can’t have censorship in a democracy by definition. Here’s how it works. The people rule. They vote for representatives to carry their agenda to the capitol city and get it enacted. That’s how they’re in charge. And then every few years they get to reassess the performance of those people in an election. In order to do that, they need access, unfettered access to information. And no one, particularly not people who are already in power, is allowed to tell them what information they can have.

(02:22:36)
They have to have all information that they want, whether the people in charge want it or don’t want it or think it’s true or think it’s false, it doesn’t matter. And the second you don’t have that, you don’t have a democracy. It’s not a free election, period. And that’s very clear in other countries, I guess. But it’s not clear here. But I would say it’s this election that… It took me a while to come to this, but it’s this election that’s the referendum on democracy. Biden is senile. He’s literally senile. He can’t talk, he can’t walk. The whole world knows that, leave our borders. Everybody in the world knows it.

(02:23:19)
A senile man is not going to get elected in the most powerful country in the world unless there’s fraud, period. Who would vote for a senile man? He literally can’t talk. And nobody I’ve ever met thinks he’s running the US government because he’s not. And so I think the world is looking on at this coming election and saying… And a lot of the world hates Trump. Okay, it’s not an endorsement of Trump, but it’s just true. If Joe Biden gets reelected, democracy is a freaking joke. That’s just true.
Lex Fridman
(02:23:52)
I think half the country doesn’t think he’s senile, just thinks-
Tucker Carlson
(02:23:52)
Do you really think that?
Lex Fridman
(02:23:56)
…He’s speaking-
Tucker Carlson
(02:23:59)
They don’t think he’s senile?
Lex Fridman
(02:24:00)
Yeah, I think he just has difficulty speaking. It’s like-
Tucker Carlson
(02:24:06)
Why do they think he has difficulty speaking?
Lex Fridman
(02:24:09)
…Gradual degradation. Just getting old. So cognitive ability is degrading.
Tucker Carlson
(02:24:12)
What’s the difference between degraded cognitive ability and senility?
Lex Fridman
(02:24:17)
Well, senility has a threshold of is beyond a threshold to where he could be a functioning leader.
Tucker Carlson
(02:24:23)
That may be a term of art that I don’t fully understand and maybe there’s an IQ threshold or something, but I’m happy to go with degraded cognitive ability.
Lex Fridman
(02:24:32)
Sure. But that’s an age thing.
Tucker Carlson
(02:24:33)
But he’s the leader of the United States with the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal.
Lex Fridman
(02:24:37)
Yeah, I’m with you. I’m a sucker for great speeches and for speaking abilities of leaders. And Biden with two wars going on and potentially more, the importance of a leader to speak eloquently, both privately in a room with other leaders and publicly is really important.
Tucker Carlson
(02:24:54)
I agree with you that rhetorical ability really matters. Convincing people that your program is right, telling them what we’re for, national identity, national unity, all come from words. I agree with all of that. But at this stage, even someone who grunted at the microphone would be more reassuring than a guy who clearly doesn’t know where he is. And I think everyone knows that. And I can’t imagine there’s an honest person in Washington, which is going to vote for Biden by 90% obviously because they’re all dependent on the federal government for their income. But is there any person who could say, out of 350 million Americans that’s the most qualified to lead, or even in the top 80%, like what? That’s so embarrassing that that guy is our president. And with wars going on, it’s scary.
Lex Fridman
(02:25:40)
But it’s complicated to understand why those are the choices we have.
Tucker Carlson
(02:25:46)
I agree. Well, it’s a failure of the system. Clearly it’s not working. If you’ve got one guy over 80, the other guy almost at 80… People that age he should not be running anything.
Lex Fridman
(02:25:56)
You have on the Democratic side, you have Dean Phillips, you have RFK Jr until recently, I guess he’s independent. And then you have Vivek who are all younger people. Why did they not connect to a degree to where the people vote?
Tucker Carlson
(02:26:11)
It’s such an interesting, I mean, I think it’s a really interesting question. There are a million different answers. And of course I don’t fully understand it even though I feel like I’ve watched it pretty carefully. But I would say the bottom line is there’s so much money vested in the federal apparatus, in the parties, in the government. As I said a minute ago, our economy’s dominated by monopolies but the greatest of all monopolies is the federal monopoly which oversees and controls all the other monopolies.

(02:26:43)
So it’s really substantially about the money. It’s not ideological. It’s about the money. And if someone controls the federal government, I mean at this point, it’s the most powerful organization in human history. It’s kind of hard to fight that. And in the case of Trump, I know the answer there. They raided Mar-a-Lago. They indicted him on bullshit charges. And I felt that in myself too. Even I was like, come on, come on. Whatever you think of Trump… And I agreed with his immigration views and I really like Trump personally. I think he’s hilarious and interesting, which he is. But it’s like, okay, there are a lot of people in this country.

(02:27:21)
At the very least, let’s have a real debate. The second… Messed up your cameras there, sorry, I’m getting excited. But the second they rated Mar-a-Lago on a documents charge, as someone from DC I was like, I know a lot about classification and all this stuff and been around it a lot. That’s so absurd that I was like, now it’s not about Trump, it’s about our system continuing. If you can take out a presidential candidate on a fake charge, use the justice system to take the guy out of the race, then we don’t have a representative democracy anymore. And I think a lot of Republican voters felt that way. If they hadn’t indicted him, I’m not sure he would be the nominee. I really don’t think he would be.
Lex Fridman
(02:28:06)
So now a vote for Trump is a kind of fuck you to the system.
Tucker Carlson
(02:28:09)
Or an expression of your desire to keep the system that we had, which is one where voters get to decide. Prosecutors don’t get to decide. Look, they told us for four years that Trump was a super criminal or something. I’ve actually been friends with some super criminals. I’m a little less judgy than most. So I didn’t discount the possibility that he had… I don’t know. He’s in the real estate business in New York in the seventies. Did he kill someone? I don’t know.
Lex Fridman
(02:28:34)
Yeah.
Tucker Carlson
(02:28:35)
No, I’m not joking. And I’m not for killing people, but anything’s possible.
Lex Fridman
(02:28:39)
It’s good that you took a stand on that.
Tucker Carlson
(02:28:42)
No, I’m not joking. I was like, well, who knows?
Lex Fridman
(02:28:45)
Real estate.
Tucker Carlson
(02:28:46)
And I didn’t know. And what they came up with was a documents charge. Are you joking? And then the sitting president has the same documents violation, but he’s fine. It’s like, it’s just crazy this is happening in front of all of us. And then it becomes… At that point, it’s not about Joe Biden, it’s not about Donald Trump. It’s about preserving a system which has worked not perfectly, but pretty freaking well for 250 years. I know you don’t like Trump. I get it. Let’s not destroy that system. We can handle another four years of Trump. I think we can. Let’s all calm down. What we can’t handle is a country whose political system is run by the Justice Department. That is just, you’re freaking Ecuador at that point. No.
Lex Fridman
(02:29:28)
So speaking of the Justice Department, CIA and intelligence agencies of that nature, which… You’ve been traveling quite a bit, probably tracked by everybody. Which is the most powerful intelligence agency, do you think? CIA, Mossad, MI6, SVR? I could keep going. The Chinese.
Tucker Carlson
(02:29:56)
It depends what you mean by powerful. Which one bats above its weight? We know. Which one-
Lex Fridman
(02:30:06)
Mossad, just to be clear, I guess is what you’re talking about.
Tucker Carlson
(02:30:08)
Well of course. Tiny country, very sophisticated intel service. Which one has the greatest global reach in comms? Which one is most able to read your texts? I assume the NSA, but Chinese are clearly pretty good. Israelis pretty good. The French actually are surprisingly good for kind of a declining country. Their intel services seem pretty impressive. No, I love France, but you know what I mean and all that. But the question… I grew up around all that stuff, that’s all totally fine. A strong country should have a strong and capable intel service so its policymakers can make informed decisions. That’s what they’re for. And so as Vladimir Putin himself noted, I don’t talk about it very much, but it’s true. I applied to the CIA when I was in college because I was familiar with it because of where I lived and had grown up and everything. And I was like, seemed interesting.

(02:30:59)
That’s honestly the only reason. I was like, live in foreign countries, see history happen. I’m for that. I applied to the Operations Directorate. They turned me down on the basis of drug use actually. True. But anyway, whatever. I was unsuited for it so I’m glad they turned me down. But the point is I didn’t see CIA as a threat, partly because I was bathing in propaganda about CIA and I didn’t really understand what it was and didn’t want to know. But second, because my impression at the time was it was outwardly focused. It was focused on our enemies. I don’t have a problem with that as much. The fact that CIA is playing in domestic politics and actually has for a long time, was involved in the Kennedy assassination, that’s not speculation. That’s a fact. And I confirmed that from someone who had read their documents that are still not public, it’s shocking.

(02:31:48)
You can’t have that. And the reason I’m so mad is I really believe in the idea of representative government. Acknowledging its imperfections, but I should have some say, I live here, I’m a citizen. I pay all your freaking taxes. So the fact that they would be tampering with American democracy is so outrageous to me. And I don’t know why Morning Joe is not outraged. This parade of dummies, highly credentialed dummies they have on Morning Joe every day. That doesn’t bother them at all. How could that not bother you? Why is only Glenn Greenwald mad about it? I mean, it’s confirmed. It’s not like a fever dream. It’s real. They played in the last election domestically, and I guess it shows how dumb I am because they’ve been doing that for many years. I mean, the guy who took out Mosaddegh lived on my street. One of the Roosevelts, CIA officer.

(02:32:42)
So I mean, again, I grew up around this stuff, but I never really thought… I never reached the obvious conclusion, which is that if the US government subverts democracy in other countries in the name of democracy, it will over time subvert democracy in my country. Why wouldn’t it? That is, the corruption is like core. It’s at the root of it. The purpose of the CIA was envisioned, at least publicly envisioned, as an intel gathering apparatus for the executive so the president could make wise foreign policy decisions. What the hell is happening in Country X? I don’t know. Let me call the agency in charge of finding out. The point wasn’t to freaking guarantee the outcome of elections.

Israel-Palestine

Lex Fridman
(02:33:27)
I’m doing an Israel Palestine debate next week, but I have to ask you just your thoughts, maybe even from a US perspective, what do you think about Hamas attacks on Israel? What would be the right thing for Israel to do and what’s the right thing for us to do in this? If you’re looking at the geopolitics of it.
Tucker Carlson
(02:33:46)
I mean, it’s not a topic that I get into a lot because I’m a non-expert and because I’m not… Unlike every other American, I’m not emotionally invested in other countries just in general. I mean, I admire them or not, and I love visiting them. I love Jerusalem, probably my favorite city in the world, but I don’t have an emotional attachment to it. So maybe I’ve got more clarity. I don’t know, maybe less. Here’s my view. I believe in sovereignty as mentioned, and I think each country has to make decisions based on its own interest, but also with reference to its own capabilities and its own long-term interest.

(02:34:26)
And it’s very unwise for… I’m not a huge fan of treaties. Some are fine, too many bad. But I think US aid, military aid to Israel and the implied security guarantees, some explicit, but many implied, security guarantees of the United States to Israel probably haven’t helped Israel that much long-term. It’s a rich country with a highly capable population. Like every other country, it’s probably best if it makes its decisions based on what it can do by itself. So I would definitely be concerned if I lived in Israel because I think fair or unfair-
Tucker Carlson
(02:35:00)
Concerned if I lived in Israel because I think, fair or unfair, and really this is another product of technology, social media, public sentiment in that area is boiling over. I think it’s going to be hard for some of the governments in the region, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, to contain their own population. They don’t want conflict with Israel at all. They were all pretty psyched actually for the trend in progress, the Saudi peace deal, which was never signed, but would’ve been great for everybody. Because trade peace, normal relations, that’s good, okay? Let’s just say. I know John Bolton doesn’t like it, but it’s good it, and it’s kind of what we should be looking for.

(02:35:39)
But now it’s not possible. If you had a coalition of countries against Israel, I know Israel has nuclear weapons and has a capable military and all that and the backing of the United States, but it’s a small country, I think I’d be very worried. So there’s that. I don’t see any advantage to the United States. I mean, I think it’s important for each country to make its own decisions.
Lex Fridman
(02:36:09)
But it also is a place, like you said, where things are boiling over and it could spread across multiple nations into a major military conflict.
Tucker Carlson
(02:36:18)
Yeah. Well, I think it very easily could happen. In fact, probably right after Ramadan, if I had to guess. I pray it doesn’t. But again, I don’t think you can overstate the lack of wisdom, weakness, short-term thinking of American foreign policy leadership. These are the architects of the Iraq War, of the totally pointless destruction of Libya, totally pointless destruction of Syria, and the 20-year occupation of Afghanistan that resulted in a return to the status quo, of the Vietnam War. Their track record of the Korean war even going back 80 years is uninterrupted failures, one after the other.

(02:36:59)
So I just don’t have any confidence in those leaders to… When was the last time they improved another country? Can you think of that? Oh, the Marshall Plan. Well, you look at Europe now and you’re like, “I don’t know if that worked.” But even if it did work, again 80 years ago. So when was the last country American foreign policy makers improved? Netanyahu’s in a very difficult place, politically impossible. I mean, I’m glad I’m not Netanyahu, and I’m not sure he’s capable of making wise long-term decisions anyway. But if I was just an Israeli, I’d be like, “I don’t know if I want all this help and guidance.”

(02:37:45)
So yeah, I actually think it’s worse than just having just returned from the Middle East and talking to a lot of pretty open-minded sort of pro-Israeli Arabs who want stability above all. The merchant class always wants stability. So I’m on their side, I guess. They’re like, “Man, this could get super ugly super fast.” American leadership is completely absent. It’s just all posturing. People like Nikki Haley, you just wonder how does an advanced civilization promote someone like Nikki Haley to a position of authority? It’s like what? Adults are talking. Adults are talking. Nikki Haley, please go away.

(02:38:25)
That would be the appropriate response. But everyone’s so intimidated to be like, “Oh, she’s a strong woman.” She’s so transparently weak and sort of ridiculous and doesn’t know anything, and it’s just thinks that jumping up and down and making these absurd blanket statements, repeating bumper stickers just like leadership or something. It’s like a self-confident advanced society would never allow Nikki Haley to advance. I mean, she’s really not impressive. Sorry.
Lex Fridman
(02:38:53)
I just feel like you hold back too much and don’t tell us what you really think.
Tucker Carlson
(02:38:58)
Sorry.
Lex Fridman
(02:38:59)
I think you just speak your mind more often.
Tucker Carlson
(02:39:02)
I mean, you can completely disagree with my opinions, but in the case of Nikki Haley, it’s not like an opinion formed just from watching television, which I don’t watch. It’s an opinion formed from knowing Nikki Haley, so.
Lex Fridman
(02:39:14)
Strong words from Tucker, well felt too.
Tucker Carlson
(02:39:18)
Well, the world’s in the balance. I mean, it’s not just like-
Lex Fridman
(02:39:20)
Yes, yes. This is important stuff.
Tucker Carlson
(02:39:21)
Yeah, it’s not just like, well, what should the capital gains rate be? It’s like, do we live or die? I don’t know. Let’s consult Nikki Haley. So if you’re asking should we live or die and consulting Nikki Haley, clearly you don’t care about the lives of your children. That’s how I feel.

Xi Jinping

Lex Fridman
(02:39:37)
Not to try to get a preview or anything, but do you have interest of interviewing Xi Jinping? If you do, how will you approach that?
Tucker Carlson
(02:39:47)
I have enormous interest in doing that, enormous, and a couple other people and we’re working on it.
Lex Fridman
(02:39:53)
Yeah. I should also say, it’s been refreshing you interviewing world leaders. I think when I’ve started seeing you do that, it made me realize how much that’s lacking.
Tucker Carlson
(02:40:06)
Well, yeah, it’s just interesting. I mean-
Lex Fridman
(02:40:07)
From even a historical perspective, it’s interesting. But it’s also important from a geopolitics perspective.
Tucker Carlson
(02:40:13)
Well, it’s really changed my perspective and I’ve been going on about how American I am, and I think that’s a great thing. I love America. But it’s also we’re so physically geographically isolated from the world, even though I traveled a ton as a kid, a lot, more than most people. But even now I’m like, “I’m so parochial.” I see everything through this lens and getting out and seeing the rest of the world to which we really are connected, that’s real, is vitally important. So yeah. I mean, at this stage I don’t kind of need to do it, but I really want to, just motivated by curiosity and trying to expand my own mind and not be closed-minded and see the fullest perspective I possibly can in order to render wise judgments. I mean, that’s like the whole journey of life.
Lex Fridman
(02:41:06)
I was just hanging out with Rogan yesterday, Joe Rogan. I mentioned to him that as me being a fan of his show, that I would love for him to talk with you and he said he’s up for it. Any reason you guys haven’t done it already.
Tucker Carlson
(02:41:22)
I don’t know. I’ve only met Rogan once and I liked him. I met him at the UFC in New York. He was with somebody, a mutual friend of ours. Rogan changed media. I mean, maybe more than anybody. What I admire about Rogan without knowing him beyond meeting him that one time, I mean, I’m still in media, but I’ve always been in media. It’s not a great surprise. I’m doing what I’ve always done just a different format. But Rogan, he’s got one of those resumes that I admire. I like the guy who was like, “I was a longshoreman. I was a short order cook. I was an astrophysicist.” You know what I mean? You use to call it a man of parts. This guy was a fighter, a stand up comic. He hosted some Fear Factor. How did he wind up at the vanguard of the deepest conversations in the country? How did that happen? So I definitely respect that and I think it’s cool. Rogan is one of those people who just came out of nowhere. No one helped him. You know what I mean?
Lex Fridman
(02:42:31)
He was doing the thing that he loves doing and it somehow keeps accidentally being exceptionally successful.
Tucker Carlson
(02:42:36)
Yeah, and he’s curious. So that’s the main thing. There was a guy, without getting boring, but there was a guy I worked with years ago who kind of dominated cable news, Larry King. Everyone would always beat up on Larry King for being dumb. Well, I got to know Larry King well, and I was his fill in host for a while, and Larry King was just intensely curious. He’d be like, “Why do you wear a black tie, Lex?” You’d be like, “Because I like black tie.” “Why do you like a black tie? Everyone else wears a striped tie, but you wear a black one.” He was really interested.
Lex Fridman
(02:43:01)
Yeah, genuinely so, yeah.
Tucker Carlson
(02:43:02)
Totally. I want to be like that. I don’t want to think I know everything. That’s so boorish and also false. You don’t know everything. But I see that in Rogan. Rogan’s like, “How does that work?”
Lex Fridman
(02:43:15)
100%.
Tucker Carlson
(02:43:16)
It’s so funny how that’s threatening to people. It’s like Rogan will just sit there while someone else is free balling on some far out topic, which by the way might be true, probably truer than the conventional explanation. People are like, “I don’t know, how can he stand that?” He had someone say, “The pyramids weren’t built 3,000 years ago, but 8,000 years ago, and that’s wrong.” It’s like, first of all, how do you know when the pyramids were built? Second, why do you care if someone disagrees with you? What is that?

(02:43:44)
This weird kind of group think, it’s almost like fourth grade, there’s always some little girl in the front row who’s like acting as kind of the teacher’s enforcer. Whip around and be like, “Sit down. Didn’t you hear Mrs. Johnson said sit down.” It’s like the whole American media, “How dare you ask that question?” Rogan just seems like completely on his own trip. He doesn’t even hear it. He’s like, “Well, really where the pyramids built?” I was like, “Oh, I love that.”
Lex Fridman
(02:44:15)
Yeah, curiosity, open-mindedness.
Tucker Carlson
(02:44:17)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(02:44:17)
The thing I admire about him most, honestly, is that he’s a good father. He’s a good husband. He’s a good family man for many years. That’s his place where he escapes from the world too and it’s just beautiful.
Tucker Carlson
(02:44:31)
Without that man, you’re destroyed.
Lex Fridman
(02:44:33)
Yeah.
Tucker Carlson
(02:44:34)
If I had a wife who was interested at all in any way in what I did, I think I would’ve gone crazy by now. When we get home, she’s like, “How was your day?” “It was great.” “Oh, I’m so proud of you.” That’s the end of our conversation about what I do for a living. That is such a wonderful and essential respite from, you said how do I not become an asshole to the extent I haven’t, I kind of have. How have I not been transformed into a totally insufferable megalomaniac who is checking his Twitter replies every day or every minute? It’s that. Yeah. The core of your life has to be solid and enduring and not just ephemeral and silly.
Lex Fridman
(02:45:14)
So the two of you have known each other for what, 40 years?
Tucker Carlson
(02:45:17)
We’ve been together 40 years.
Lex Fridman
(02:45:19)
Together 40 years.
Tucker Carlson
(02:45:20)
40 years, yeah, 1984. Was the hottest 15-year old in Newport, Rhode Island.
Lex Fridman
(02:45:25)
Wow.
Tucker Carlson
(02:45:26)
It sounds dirty, but I’m talking about myself, I was the hottest.
Lex Fridman
(02:45:29)
[inaudible 02:45:29]. Yeah. You were just looking in the mirror.
Tucker Carlson
(02:45:32)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(02:45:32)
Very nice. So what’s the secret to successful relationship, successful marriage?
Tucker Carlson
(02:45:38)
I don’t even know. I mean, no, I’m serious. I got married in August ’91, so that’s our 30 year of being married.
Lex Fridman
(02:45:48)
The collapse of the Soviet Union.
Tucker Carlson
(02:45:49)
Yeah, yeah, yeah. As noted. Yeah. So you hear these people, it’s actually changed my theology a little bit. Not that I have deep theology, but I grew up in a society in Southern California when I was little. That was a totally self-created society. I mean, Southern California was that root of libertarianism for a reason. It was like that’s where you went to recreate yourself. So the operative assumption there is that you are the sum total of your choices and that free will is everything. We never consider questions like, well, why do children get cancer? What do they do to deserve it? Well, of course nothing, right? Because that would suggest that maybe you’re not the sum total.

(02:46:31)
Your choices matter. If I smoke a lot, I get lung cancer. If I use fentanyl, I may OD. Got it. If I don’t exercise, I might get fat, okay. But on a bigger scale, you’re not only the sum total of your choices. Things happen to you that you didn’t deserve, good and bad. Marriages, and I’ll speak for myself, in my case, just one of them. I mean, clearly spending time with the person you’re married to, talking, enjoying each other. I have a lot of rituals. We have a lot of rituals that ensure that. But in 40 years, you’re like a different person.

(02:47:09)
I did drugs. I was drinking all the time when we met. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that. I’m very different and so is she, but we’re different in ways that are complementary and happy. We’ve never been happier. So how do we pull that off? Just kind of good luck, honestly. Then I see other people… No, I’m not kidding. But that’s true. I think it’s so important not to flatter yourself if you’ve been successful at something. The thing I’ve been most successful at is marriage, but it’s not really me. I mean, I haven’t-
Lex Fridman
(02:47:41)
So I think what you’re indirectly communicating is it’s like humility, I think.
Tucker Carlson
(02:47:45)
It’s not even humility. Humility is the result of a reality-based worldview, okay?
Lex Fridman
(02:47:49)
Sure, right.
Tucker Carlson
(02:47:50)
Once you see things clearly, then you know that you are not the author of all your successes or failures. I hate the implication otherwise because it suggests powers that people don’t have. It’s one of the reasons I always hated the smoking debate or the COVID debate. Someone die of COVID, didn’t have the vaccine. They’d be like, “See, that’s what you get.” You smoke cigarettes, you die. Well, yeah, if you smoke cigarettes, you’re more likely to get lung cancer. Whatever. Cause and effect is real. I’m not denying its existence. It’s obvious, but it’s not the whole story. There are larger forces acting on us, unseen forces. That’s just a fact. You don’t need to be some kind of religious nut and they act on AI too and you should keep that in mind. The idea that all-
Tucker Carlson
(02:48:36)
It’s missing why you said that.
Tucker Carlson
(02:48:37)
No, it’s true. It’s demonstrably true. We’re the only society that hasn’t acknowledged the truth of that. The idea that the only things that are real are the things that we can see or measure in a lab. That’s insane. That’s just dumb.
Lex Fridman
(02:48:51)
In the religious context, you have this two categories that I really like of the two kinds of people, people who believe they’re God and people who know they’re not, which is a really interesting division that speaks to humility and a kind of realist worldview of where we are in the world.
Tucker Carlson
(02:49:12)
Oh.
Lex Fridman
(02:49:14)
Can atheists be in the latter category?
Tucker Carlson
(02:49:18)
No. There are very few atheists. I’ve never actually met one. There are people who pose as atheists, but no one’s purely rational. Everyone, I mean, this is a cliche for a reason, everyone under extreme stress appeals to a power higher than himself because everyone knows that there is a power higher than himself. So really it’s just people who are gripped with a delusion that they’re God. No one actually believes that. If you’re God, jump off the roof of your garage and see what happens. You know what I mean? No one actually thinks that, but people behave as if it’s true, and those people are dangerous. I will say by contrast, the only people I trust are the people who know their limits.

(02:49:59)
I was thinking actually this morning in my sauna, of all the people I’ve interviewed or met, this is someone I’ve never interviewed, but I have talked to him a couple of times, the greatest leader I’ve ever met in the world is literally a king. It’s MB Sheikh Mohammed of Abu Dhabi, who is Muslim. I’m definitely not Muslim. I’m Christian, Protestant Christian. So I don’t agree with his religion and I don’t agree with monarchies, but he’s the best leader in the world that I’ve ever met, and by far, it’s not even close. Why is that? Well, I could bore you for an hour on the subject, but the reason that he’s such a good leader is because he’s guided by an ever-present knowledge of his limitations and of the limits of his power and of his foresight.

(02:50:53)
When you start there, when you start with reality, it’s not even humility. Humility can be a pose like, “Oh, I’m so humble.” Okay, humble brag is a phrase for a reason. It’s like way deeper than that’s just like, no, do I have magical powers? Can I see the future? No. Okay. That’s just a fact. So I’m not God, but I’ve never seen anybody more at ease with admitting that than MBZ, just a remarkable person. For that reason, he is treated as an oracle. I don’t think people understand the number of world leaders who traipse through his house or palace to seek his counsel. I’m not sure that there is a parallel since, I don’t want to get too hyperbolic here, but honestly, since Solomon, where people come from around the world to ask what he thinks.

(02:51:46)
Now, why would they be doing that? Because Abu Dhabi’s military is so powerful? I mean, he’s rich, okay, massive oil and gas deposits, but so is Canada. You know what I mean? No one is coming to Ottawa to ask Justin Trudeau what he thinks. No, it’s humility. That’s where wisdom comes from. You start to think, I spent my whole life mad at America’s leadership class, because it’s not just Biden or the people in official positions, it’s the whole constellation of advisors and throne sniffers around them. It’s not even that I disagree with them. It’s I’m not impressed by them. I’m just not impressed. They’re not that capable, right? So that’s what I was saying about Nikki Haley. I don’t think Nikki Haley’s the most evil person in the world. I just think she’s ridiculous, obviously. Everyone’s like, “Oh, Nikki Haley or Mike Pompeo.” What?
Lex Fridman
(02:52:40)
Great leaders are so rare that when you see one, you know it right away.
Tucker Carlson
(02:52:44)
It blows your mind. What blows my mind about Sheikh Mohammed in Abu Dhabi is that everyone in the world knows it. I’ve never seen a story on this, and I’m not guessing, I know this is true because I’ve seen it. Everyone in the world knows it. So if there’s a conflict, he’s the only person that people call. Everybody calls the same guy. It’s like he runs this tiny little country, the UAE, in Abu Dhabi there are a bunch of Emirates, but he’s the president of the country, but still, and it’s got a ton of energy and all that wealth and all that. Dubai’s got great real estate and restaurants, but really it’s a tiny little country that wasn’t even a country 50 years ago. So how did that happen? Purely on the basis of his humility and the wisdom that results from that humility. That’s it.

Advice for young people

Lex Fridman
(02:53:34)
What advice would you give to young people? You got four, you somehow made them into great human beings. What advice would you give people in high school?
Tucker Carlson
(02:53:43)
Have children immediately.
Lex Fridman
(02:53:45)
Oh that.
Tucker Carlson
(02:53:45)
Including in high school? Yes, I think that. That’s all that matters in the end. Again, these aren’t even cliches anymore because no one says them. But when I was a kid, people always say, “On your deathbed, you never wish you’d spent more time at work.” I mean, everyone said that. It was like one of these things. Now, I don’t think Google allows you to say that. It’s like, “No, you’re going to wish you spent more time at work. Get back to your cube.” But I can’t overstate from my vantage how true that is. Nothing else matters but your family.

(02:54:20)
If you have the opportunity, and a lot of people are being denied the opportunity to have children, and this messing with the gender roles, and I’m not even talking about the tranny stuff, I mean, feminism has so destroyed people’s brains and the ability of young people to connect with each other and stay together and have fruitful lives. It’s like nothing’s been more destructive than that. It’s such a lie. It’s so dumb. It’s counter to human nature, and nothing counter to human nature can endure. It can only cause suffering and that’s what it’s done. But fight that. Stop complaining about it. Find someone.

(02:54:54)
By the way, everyone gets together, or most people get together on the basis, in a Western society where there’s no arranged marriages, they get together on a basis of sexual attraction. Totally natural. Get off your birth control and have children. “Oh, I can’t afford that.” Well, yeah, you’ll figure out a way to afford it once you have kids. It’s like it’s chicken in the egg, but it’s actually not. When you have responsibility, when you have no… This is true of men, I’m not sure if true of women, but it’s definitely true of men, you will not achieve until you have no choice. Because I always think of men, men do nothing until they have to, but once they have to, they will do anything. That is true.

(02:55:32)
Men will do nothing unless they have to. But once they have to, they will do anything. I really believe that from watching and from being one. I would never have done anything if I didn’t have to, but I had to and I would just recommend it. By the way, even if you don’t succeed, even if you’re poor, having spent my life among rich people, I grew up among rich people, I am a rich person. Boy, are they unhappy? Well, that’s clearly not the road to happiness. You don’t want to be a debt slave or starved to death or anything like that, but making a billion dollars, that’s not worth doing. Don’t do that. Don’t even try to do that.

(02:56:03)
If you create something that’s beautiful and worth having and you make a billion dollars, okay, then you have to deal with your billion dollars, which will be the worst part of your life, trust me. But seeking money for its own sake is a dead end. What you should seek for its own sake is children. Talk about a creative act. Last thing I’ll say, the whole point of life is to create, okay? The act of creation, which is dying in the West, in the arts and in its most pure expression, which is children, that’s all that’s worth doing while you’re alive is creating something beautiful. Creating children, by the way, it’s super fun. It’s not hard. I can get more technical off the earth if you want.
Lex Fridman
(02:56:42)
Can you? Yeah, please.
Tucker Carlson
(02:56:43)
I have a lot of thoughts on it.
Lex Fridman
(02:56:44)
Do you have documents or something?
Tucker Carlson
(02:56:45)
No, I can draw you a schematic.
Lex Fridman
(02:56:48)
Oh, thank you.
Tucker Carlson
(02:56:49)
But yeah, that’s the greatest thing. The fact that corporate America denies, “Oh, freeze your eggs. Have an abortion.” What? You’re evil. Are you kidding? Because you’re taking from people the only thing that can possibly give them enduring joy. They are successfully taking it from people, and I hate them for it.
Lex Fridman
(02:57:08)
You founded TCN, Tucker Carlson Network.
Tucker Carlson
(02:57:11)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(02:57:11)
What’s your vision for it?
Tucker Carlson
(02:57:12)
I have no vision for myself, for my career, and I never have. So I’m the last person to explain.
Lex Fridman
(02:57:19)
You just roll with it.
Tucker Carlson
(02:57:19)
Yeah, I’m an instinct guy, 100%. I have a vision for the world, but I don’t have a vision for my life, for my career. So really my vision extended precisely this far, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. There was a five hour period where I wondered if I would be able to, because I feel pretty spry and alert, and I’m certainly deeply enjoying what I’m doing, which is talking to people and saying what I think and learning, constantly learning. But I just wanted to keep doing that and I also wanted to employ the people who I worked with at Fox. I’ve worked with the same people for years, and I love them. So I had all these people and I wanted to bring them with me so we had to build a structure for that.
Lex Fridman
(02:58:06)
But this feels like one of the first times you’re really working for yourself. There’s an extra level of freedom here.
Tucker Carlson
(02:58:12)
Totally, totally. You don’t want me doing your taxes. I’m good at some things, but I’m really not good at others, so. One of them would be running a business. No idea. I’m not interested, not a commerce guy, so I don’t buy anything. So it’s like the whole thing I’m not good at. But luckily, I’m really blessed to have friends who are involved in this who are good at that. So I feel positive about it, but mostly I am totally committed to only doing the things that I am good at and enjoy and not doing anything else because I don’t want to waste my time. So I’m just getting to do what I want to do and I’m really loving it.

Hope for the future

Lex Fridman
(02:58:53)
What hope, positive hope do you have for the future of human civilization in say 50 years, 100 years, 200 years?
Tucker Carlson
(02:59:01)
People are great just by their nature. I mean, they’re super complicated, but I like people. I always have liked people. If I was sitting here with Nikki Haley, who I guess I’ve been pretty clear I’m not a mega fan of Nikki Haley’s, I would enjoy it. I’ve never met anybody I couldn’t enjoy on some level given enough time. So as long as nobody tampers with the human recipe, the human nature itself, I will always feel blessed by being around other people. That’s true around the world. I’ve never been to a country, and I’ve been to scores of countries, where I didn’t, given a week, really like it and the people. So yeah, bad leaders are a recurring theme in human history. They’re mostly bad, and we’ve got an unusually bad set right now, but we’ll have better ones at some point. One thing I don’t like more than nuclear weapons and more than AI, the one thing that really, really bothers me is the idea of using technology to change the human brain permanently. Because you’re tampering with the secret sauce. You’re tampering with God’s creation, and totally evil. I mean, I literally sat there the other day with Klaus Schwab. I was with Klaus Schwab. He was like a total moron, like 100 years old and has no idea what’s going on in the world. But he’s one of these guys who, speaking of mediocre, everyone’s so afraid of Klaus Schwab, I don’t think Klaus Schwab is going to be organizing anything. Again, he’s just like a total figurehead, like a douchebag.

(03:00:40)
But anyway, but he was talking and he’s reading all these talking points, all the cool kids are talking about Adapos and whatever, and he starts talking about it in his way, his accent, he was saying, “I think it’s so important that we follow an ethical way, always in an ethical way, of course, very ethical. I’m a very ethical man, that we follow using technology to improve the human mind and implant the chips in the brain.” I’m like, “Okay, you have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re as senile as Joe Biden.” But what was so striking is that no one in the room is like, “Wait, what? You’re with people’s brains. Oh my God. What are you even talking about? Who do you think you are?”
Lex Fridman
(03:01:26)
I mean, you’re right, the secret sauce. The human mind is really special. We should not mess with it.
Tucker Carlson
(03:01:26)
It’s all that matters, dude.
Lex Fridman
(03:01:32)
We should be very careful. Whatever special thing it does, it seems like it’s a good thing. Human beings are fundamentally good. These sources of creativity, the creative force in the universe we don’t want to mess with.
Tucker Carlson
(03:01:48)
Oh, I mean, what else matters? I don’t understand. I mean, I guess, look, I don’t want to seem like the Unabomber and I’m not.
Lex Fridman
(03:01:59)
We are in a cabin in the woods.
Tucker Carlson
(03:02:00)
No. Well, I’m sympathetic to some of his ideas, but not of course sending mail bombs to people because I like people and I don’t believe in violence at all. But I think the problem with technology, one of the problems with technology is the way that people approach it in a very kind of mindless heedless way. I think it’s important, this idea that it’s inexorable and we can’t control it, and if we don’t do it, someone else will. There’s some truth in that, but it’s not the whole story. We do have free will and we are creating these things intentionally, and I think it’s incumbent on us, it’s a requirement, of a moral requirement of us that we ask, is this a net gain or a net loss? What, to the extent we can foresee them, will the effects be, et cetera, et cetera?

(03:02:46)
It’s not super complicated. So I prize long-term thinking. I don’t always apply to my own life, obviously. I want to, but I prize it. I think that people with power should think about future generations and I don’t see that kind of thinking at all. They all seem like children to me, and don’t give children handguns because they can hurt people.
Lex Fridman
(03:03:07)
Fundamentally, you want people in power to be pro-humanity.
Tucker Carlson
(03:03:11)
By the way, you don’t want people who are 81 who are going to die anyway. Why do they care? By the way, if your track record with your own family is miserable, why would I give you my family to oversee? Again, these are autistic level questions that someone should answer.
Lex Fridman
(03:03:28)
Well, thank you for asking those questions, first of all, and thank you for this conversation. Thank you for welcoming me to the cabin in the woods.
Tucker Carlson
(03:03:38)
Thank you.
Lex Fridman
(03:03:40)
Thanks for listening to this conversation with Tucker Carlson. To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description. Now, let me leave you with some words from Mahatma Gandhi. When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it, always. Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.

Transcript for Bill Ackman: Investing, Financial Battles, Harvard, DEI, X & Free Speech | Lex Fridman Podcast #413

This is a transcript of Lex Fridman Podcast #413 with Bill Ackman.
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Introduction

Bill Ackman
(00:00:00)
The only person who’ll cause you more harm than a thief with a dagger is a journalist with a pen.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:06)
The following is a conversation with Bill Ackman, a legendary activist investor who has been part of some of the biggest and at times, controversial trades in history. Also, he is fearlessly vocal on X, FKA Twitter, and uses the platform to fight for ideas he believes in. For example, he was a central figure in the resignation of the President of Harvard University, Claudine Gay, the saga of which we discuss in this episode. This is the Lex Fridman podcast to support it. Please check out our sponsors in the description. And now to you, friends, here’s Bill Ackman.

Investing basics


(00:00:47)
In your lecture on the basics of finance and investing, you mentioned a book, Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham, as being formative in your life. What key lesson do you take away from that book that informs your own investing?
Bill Ackman
(00:01:00)
Sure. Actually, it was the first investment book I read, and as such, it was kind of the inspiration for my career and a lot of my life. So important book. Bear in mind, this is sort of after the Great Depression, people lost confidence investing in markets, World War II, and then he writes this book. It’s for the average man, and basically he says that you have to understand the difference between price and value. Price is what you pay, value is what you get. And he said the stock market is here to serve you, and it’s a bit like the neighbor that comes by every day and makes you an offer for your house. It makes you a stupid offer, you ignore. It makes you a great offer, you can take it. And that’s the stock market.

(00:01:44)
And the key is to figure out what something’s worth and you have to kind of weigh it. He talked about the difference between… He said the stock market in the short term is a voting machine. It represents speculative interests, supply and demand of people in the short term. But in the long term, the stock market’s a weighing machine, much more accurate. It’s going to tell you what something’s worth. And so if you can define what something’s worth, then you can really take advantage of the market because it’s really here to help you. And that’s kind of the message of the book.
Lex Fridman
(00:02:14)
In that same way, there’s a kind of difference between speculation and investing.
Bill Ackman
(00:02:18)
Yeah, speculation is just a bit like trading crypto, right? You’re-
Lex Fridman
(00:02:25)
Strong words.
Bill Ackman
(00:02:27)
Well, short-term trading crypto. Maybe in the long run there’s intrinsic value, but many investors in a bubble going into the crash were really just pure speculators. They didn’t know what things were worth, they just knew they were going up. That’s speculation. And investing is doing your homework, digging down, understanding a business, understanding the competitive dynamics of an industry, understanding what management’s going to do, understanding what price you’re going to pay. The value of anything, I would say, other than love, let’s say, is the present value of the cash you can take out of it over its life. Now, some people think about love that way, but it’s not the right way to think about love. So investing is about basically building a model of what this business is going to produce over its lifetime.
Lex Fridman
(00:03:22)
So how do you get to that, this idea called value investing? How do you get to the value of a thing? Even philosophically, value of anything really but we can just talk about the things that are on the stock market, companies.
Bill Ackman
(00:03:35)
The value of a security is the present value of the cash you can take out of it over its life. So if you think about a bond, a bond pays a 5% coupon, interest rate. You get that, let’s say, every year or twice a year, split in half, and it’s very predictable. And if it’s a US government bond, you know you’re going to get it. So that’s a pretty easy thing to value. A stock is an interest in a business. It’s like owning a piece of a company and a business, a profitable one, is like a bond in that it generates these coupons or these earnings or cashflow every year. The difference with a stock and a bond is that the bond, it’s a contract. You know what you’re going to get as long as they don’t go bankrupt and default. With the stock, you have to make predictions about the business.

(00:04:22)
How many widgets are going to sell this year, how many are going to sell next year, what are the costs going to be? How much of the money that they generate? Do they need to reinvest in the business to keep the business going? And that’s more complicated. But what we do is we try to find businesses where, with a very high degree of confidence, we know what those cash flows are going to be for a very long time. And very few businesses that you can have a really high degree of certainty about. And as a result, many investments are speculations because it’s really very difficult to predict the future. So what we do for a living, what I do for a living is find those rare companies that you can kind of predict what they’re going to look like over a very long period of time.
Lex Fridman
(00:05:01)
So what are the factors that indicate that a company is going to be something that’s going to make a lot of money, it’s going to have a lot of value, and it’s going to be reliable over a long period of time? And what is your process of figuring out whether a company is or isn’t that?

Investing in music

Bill Ackman
(00:05:19)
So every consumer has a view on different brands and different companies. And what we look for are these non-disruptively businesses, a business where you can close your eyes, stock market shuts for a decade, and you know that 10 years from now it’s going to be a more valuable, more profitable company. So we own a business called Universal Music Group. It’s in the business of helping artists become global artists, recorded music business, and it’s in the business of owning the music publishing rights of songwriters. And I think music is forever, right? Music is a many thousand year old part of the human experience, and I think it will be thousands of years from now. And so that’s a pretty good backdrop to invest in a company. And the company basically owns a third of the global recorded music, the most dominant market share in the business.

(00:06:20)
They’re the best at taking an artist who’s 18 years old, who’s got a great voice, and has started to get a presence on YouTube and Instagram and helping that artist become a superstar. And that’s a unique talent. And the end result is the best artists in the world want to come work for them, but they also have this incredible library of the Beatles, the Rolling Stone, U2, et cetera. And then if you think about what music has become… It used to be about what records and CDs and eight track tapes for those of whom… And it was about a new format and that’s how they drive sales. And it’s become a business which is like the podcast business, streaming. And streaming is a lot more predictable than selling records. You can sort of say, “Okay, how many people have smartphones? How many people are going to have smartphones next year?”

(00:07:12)
There’s a kind of global penetration over time of smartphones. You pay, call it, 10, 11 bucks a month for a subscription or less for a family plan and you can kind of build a model of what the world looks like and predict the growth of the streaming business, predict what kind of market share Universal is going to have over time. You can’t get to a precise view of value. You can get to an approximation. And the key is to buy at a price that represents a big discount to that approximation. And that gets back to Ben Graham. Ben Graham invented this concept of margin of safety. You want to buy a company at a price that if you’re wrong about what you think it’s worth and it turns out to be worth 30% less, you paid a deep enough discount to your estimate that you’re still okay. A big part of investing is not losing money. If you can avoid losing money and then have a few great hits, you can do very, very well over time.
Lex Fridman
(00:08:09)
Well, music is interesting because yes, music’s been around for a very long time, but the way to make money from music has been evolving. Like you mentioned streaming, there’s a big transition initiated by, I guess, Napster, then created Spotify of how you make money on music with Apple and with all of this. And the question is, how well are companies like UMG able to adjust to such transformations? One, I could ask you about the future, which is artificial intelligence being able to generate music, for example.
Bill Ackman
(00:08:43)
Sure.
Lex Fridman
(00:08:43)
There have been a lot of amazing advancements with… So do you have to also think about that. When you close your eyes, all the things you think about, are you imagining the possible ways that the future is completely different from the present and how well this company will be able to surf the wave of that?
Bill Ackman
(00:09:00)
Sure. And they’ve had to surf a lot of waves. And actually the music business peaked the last time in the late ’90s or 2000 timeframe. And that really innovation, Napster, digitization of music, almost killed the industry. And Universal really led an effort to save the industry and actually made an early deal with Spotify that enabled the industry to really recover. And so by virtue of their market position and their credibility and their willingness to kind of adopt new technologies, they’ve kept their position. Now, they of course had this huge advantage because I think the Beatles are forever, I think U2 is forever, I think Rolling Stones are forever. So they had a nice base of assets that were important and I think will forever be, and forever is a long time. Again, enormous… There are all kinds of risks in every business. This is one that I think has a very high degree of persistence.

(00:09:52)
And I can’t envision a world beyond streaming in a sense… Now you may have a Neuralink chip in your head instead of a phone, but the music can come in a digitized kind of format, you’re going to want to have an infinite library that you can walk around in your pocket or in your brain. It’s not going to matter that much of the form factor. The device changes. It’s not really that important whether it’s Spotify or Apple or Amazon that are the so-called DSPs or the providers. I think the value is really going to reside in the content owners. And that’s really the artists and the label.
Lex Fridman
(00:10:32)
And I actually think AI is not going to be the primary creator of music. I think we’re going to actually face the reality that it’s not that music has been around for thousands of years, but musicians and music has been around. We actually care to know who’s the musician that created it, just like we want to know who’s the artist, human artist that created a piece of art.
Bill Ackman
(00:10:59)
I totally agree. If you think about it, there’s lots of other technologies and computers that have been used to generate music over time but no one falls in love with a computer generated track. And Taylor Swift, incredible music, but it’s also about the artist and her story and her physical presence and the live experience. I don’t think you’re going to sit there and someone’s going to put a computer up on stage and it’s going to play and people are going to get excited around it. So I think AI is really going to be a tool to make artists better artists. A synthesizer really created the opportunity for one man to have an orchestra. Maybe a bit of a threat to a percussionist, but not maybe. Maybe it drove even more demand for the live experience.
Lex Fridman
(00:11:57)
Unless that computer has human- like sentience, which I believe is a real possibility. But then it’s really, from a business perspective, no different than a human. If it has an identity, that’s basically fame and an influence, and there’ll be a robot Taylor Swift and it doesn’t really matter-
Bill Ackman
(00:12:14)
That’s a copyrightable asset I would think, right? Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:12:18)
And then there’ll-
Bill Ackman
(00:12:18)
I’m not sure that’s the world I’m excited about that.
Lex Fridman
(00:12:21)
That’s a different discussion. The world is not going to ask your permission to become what it’s becoming, but you could still make money on it. Presumably there’d be a capital system and there’d be some laws under which I believe AI systems will have rights that are akin to human rights and we’re going to have to contend with what that means.
Bill Ackman
(00:12:40)
Well, there’s sort of name and likeness rights that have to be protected. Now, can a name be attributed to a Tesla robot? I don’t know.
Lex Fridman
(00:12:50)
I think so. I think it’s quite obvious to me.
Bill Ackman
(00:12:52)
Okay, so those are more potential artists for us to represent at Universal.
Lex Fridman
(00:12:56)
Exactly, exactly. All right.
Bill Ackman
(00:12:57)
That’s sort of one example. Another example could be just the restaurant industry. If you look at businesses like a McDonald’s, it’s… Whatever, the company’s like an 1950 vintage business and here we are, 75 years later, and you can kind of predict what it’s going to look like over time. And the menu’s going to adjust over time to consumer tastes but I think the hamburger and fries is probably forever.
Lex Fridman
(00:13:21)
The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the hamburger and fries are forever. I was eating at Chipotle last night as I was preparing these notes-
Bill Ackman
(00:13:30)
Thank you. Thank you.
Lex Fridman
(00:13:32)
And yeah, it is one of my favorite places to eat. You said it is a place that you eat. You obviously also invest in it. What do you get at Chipotle?
Bill Ackman
(00:13:41)
I tend to get a double chicken.
Lex Fridman
(00:13:43)
Bowl or burrito?
Bill Ackman
(00:13:45)
I like the burrito, but I generally try to order the bowl. Cut the carb part.
Lex Fridman
(00:13:49)
For health reasons. All right.
Bill Ackman
(00:13:51)
And double chicken, guac, lettuce, black beans.

Process of researching companies

Lex Fridman
(00:13:54)
And I’m more of a steak guy, just putting that on the record. What’s the actual process you go through, literally the process of figuring out what the value of a company is? How do you do the research? Is it reading documents? Is it talking to people? How do you do it?
Bill Ackman
(00:14:16)
All of the above. So Chipotle, what attracted us initially is the stock price dropped by about 50%. Great company, great concept. Athletes love it, consumers love it. Healthy, sustainable, fresh food made in front of your eyes and great… Steve Ells is the founder, did an amazing job, but ultimately the company’s lacking some of the systems and had a food safety issue. Consumers got sick, almost killed the rent. But the reality of the fast food, quick service industry is almost every fast food company has had a food safety issue over time. And the vast majority have survived. And we said, “Look, it’s such a great concept,” but their approach was not… It was far from my deal, but we start with usually reading the SEC filing. So companies file a 10-K or an annual report and they file these quarterly reports called 10-Qs. They have a proxy statement which describes the governance, the board structure.

(00:15:14)
Conference call transcripts are publicly available. It’s very helpful to go back five years and learn the story. “Here’s how management describes their business, here’s what they say they’re going to do,” and you can follow along to see what they do. It’s like a historical record of how competent and truthful they are. It’s a very useful device. And then, of course, looking at competitors and thinking about what could dislodge this company. And then we’ll talk to… If it’s an industry we don’t know well… We know the restaurant industry really well. Music industry, we will talk to people in the industry. We’ll try to understand the difference between publishing and recorded music. We’ll look at the competitors, we’ll read books. I read a book about the music industry or a couple books about the industry.

(00:16:04)
So it’s a bit like a big research project. And these, so-called expert networks now, and you can get pretty much anyone on the phone and they’ll talk to you about an aspect of the industry that you don’t understand, want to learn more about. Try to get a sense… Public filings of companies generally give you a lot of information, but not everything you want to know. And you can learn more by talking to experts about some of the industry dynamics, the personalities. You want to get a sense of management. I like watching podcasts. If a CEO were to do a podcast or a YouTube interview, you get a sense of the people.
Lex Fridman
(00:16:40)
So in the case of Chipotle, for example… By the way, I could talk about Chipotle all day. I just love it. I love it. I wish there was a sponsor.
Bill Ackman
(00:16:48)
I’ll mention it to the CEO.
Lex Fridman
(00:16:50)
Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Bill.
Bill Ackman
(00:16:51)
I’m not making… Brian Nichols a fantastic CEO. He’s not going to spend $1 that he doesn’t think is in the company’s best interest.
Lex Fridman
(00:16:58)
All right. All I want is free Chipotle, come on now. What was I saying? Oh, and so you look at a company like Chipotle and then you see there’s a difficult moment in its history, like you said that there was a food safety issue and then you say, “Okay, well I see a path where we can fix this and therefore even though the price is low, we can get it to where the price goes up to its value.”
Bill Ackman
(00:17:24)
So the kind of business we’re looking for is sort of the kind of business everyone should be looking for, right? A great business, it’s got a long-term trajectory of growth even beyond the foreseeable distance. Those are the kind of businesses you want to own, you want businesses that generate a lot of cash, you want businesses you can easily understand, you want businesses with these sort of huge barriers to entry where it’s difficult for others to compete. You want companies that don’t have to constantly raise capital. And these are some of the great business of the world, but people have figured out that those are the great businesses. So the problem is those companies tend to have very high stock prices and the value is generally built into the price you have to pay for the business.

(00:18:02)
So we can’t earn the kind of returns we want to earn for investors by paying a really high price. Price matters a lot. You can buy the best business in the world and if you overpay, you’re not going to earn particularly attractive returns. So we get involved in cases where a great business has kind of made a big mistake or you’ve a company that’s kind of lost its way, but it’s recoverable. And we buy from shareholders who are disappointed, who’ve lost confidence, selling at a low price relative to what it’s worth if fixed. And then we try to be helpful in fixing the company.

Investing in restaurants

Lex Fridman
(00:18:39)
You said that barriers to entry… You said a lot of really interesting qualities of companies very quickly in a sequence of statements that took less than 10 seconds to say, but some of them were… All of them were fascinating. So you said barriers to entry. How do you know if there’s a type of moat protecting the competitors from stepping up to the plate?
Bill Ackman
(00:19:04)
The most difficult analysis to do as an investor is that, is kind of figuring out how wide is the moat, how much at risk is the business to disruption? And we’re in, I would say, the greatest period of disruptability in history. Technology… A couple of 19 year olds can leave whatever university or maybe they didn’t even go in the first place, they can raise millions of dollars, they can get access to infinite bandwidth storage. They can contract with engineers in low cost markets around the world. They could build a virtual company and they can disrupt businesses that seem super established over time. And then on top of that, you have major companies with multi-trillion dollar market caps working to find profits wherever they can. And so that’s a dangerous world in a way to be an investor. And so you have to find businesses that it’s hard to foresee a world in which they get disrupted.

(00:20:04)
The beauty of the restaurant business… Our best track record is in restaurants. We’ve never lost money. We’ve only made a fortune, interestingly, investing restaurants. A big part of it, it’s a really simple business. If you get Chipotle right and you’re at a hundred stores, it’s not so hard to envision getting to 200 stores and then getting to 500 stores, right? And the key is maintaining the brand image, growing intelligently, having the right systems. Now when you go from a hundred stores to 3,500 stores, you have to know what you’re doing and there’s a lot of complexity. If you think about your local restaurant, the family’s working in the business, they’re watching the cash register, and you can probably open another restaurant across town, but there are very few restaurant operators that own more than a few restaurants and operate them successfully.

(00:20:56)
And the quick service business is about systems and building a model that a stranger who doesn’t know the restaurant industry can come in and enter the business and build a successful franchise. Now, Chipotle is not a franchise company. They actually own all their own stores, but many of the most successful restaurant companies are franchise models like a Burger King, a McDonald’s, Tim Horton’s, all these various brands, Popeyes. And there it’s about systems, but the same systems apply whether you own all the stores and it’s run by a big corporation or whether the owners of the restaurants are sort of franchisees, local entrepreneurs.
Lex Fridman
(00:21:32)
So if the restaurant has scaled to a certain number, that means they’ve figured out some kind of system that works. And it’s very difficult to develop that kind of system. So that’s a moat?
Bill Ackman
(00:21:41)
A moat is you get to a certain scale and you do it successfully and the brand is now the understood by the consumer. And what’s interesting about Chipotle is what they’ve achieved is difficult. They’re not buying frozen hamburgers, getting shipped in. They’re buying fresh, sustainably sourced ingredients. They’re preparing food in the store. That was a first. The quality of the product at Chipotle is incredible. It’s the highest quality food. You can get a serious dinner for under 20 bucks and eat really healthfully and very high quality ingredients. And that’s just not available anywhere else. And it’s very hard to replicate and to build those relationships with farmers around the country. It’s a lot easier to make a deal with one of the big massive food producers and buy your pork from them than to buy from a whole bunch of farmers around the country. And so that is a big moat for Chipotle, very difficult to replicate.
Lex Fridman
(00:22:38)
And by the way, another company, I think, you have a stake in is McDonald’s?
Bill Ackman
(00:22:41)
No. We own a company called Restaurant Brands. Restaurant Brands owns a number of quick service companies, one of which is Burger King.
Lex Fridman
(00:22:47)
Burger King, okay. Well, it’s been a meme for a while, but… Burger King is great too. Wendy’s, whatever. But usually I go McDonald’s, I’ll just eat burger patties. I don’t know if you knew you could do this, but a burger patty… Burger King can do this, McDonald’s. It’s actually way cheaper.
Bill Ackman
(00:23:05)
They’ll just sell you the patty.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:07)
The patty and it’s cheap. It’s like $1.50 or $2 per patty and it’s about 250 calories and it’s just meat. And despite the criticism or memes out there, that’s-
Bill Ackman
(00:23:18)
Pretty healthy stuff.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:19)
It’s healthy stuff. And so the healthiest I feel is when I do carnivore. It doesn’t sound healthy, but if I eat only meat, I feel really good, I lose weight. I have all this energy, it’s crazy. And when I’m traveling, the easiest way to get meat is that.
Bill Ackman
(00:23:34)
So you go to McDonald’s, you order six patties.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:35)
Exactly. So there’s this sad meme of me just sitting alone in a car when I’m traveling, just eating beef patties at McDonald’s. But I love it. And you got to do what you love, what makes you happy, and that’s what makes me happy.
Bill Ackman
(00:23:46)
I think maybe we’ll have Burger King feature in it. What about Flame World? What’s with these fried burgers? We got to get you to Burger King, grilled burgers.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:54)
Wait, is this fast food trash? I don’t know the details of how they’re made. I don’t have allegiance-
Bill Ackman
(00:24:00)
I think we got a chance to switch you to Burger King.
Lex Fridman
(00:24:02)
Great. We’ll see. I’m making so many deals today, it’s wonderful. Okay, you were talking about moats, and this kind of remind me of Alphabet, the parent company.

Investing in Google

Bill Ackman
(00:24:13)
Sure. It’s a big position for us.
Lex Fridman
(00:24:15)
So it’s interesting that you think that maybe Alphabet fits some of these characteristics. It’s tricky to know with everything that’s happening in AI… And I’m interviewing Sundar Pichai soon. It’s interesting that you think that there’s a moat. And it’s also interesting to analyze it because as a consumer, as just a fan of technology, why is Google still around? It’s not just a search engine, it’s doing all the basics of the business of search really well, but they’re doing all these other stuff. So what’s your analysis of Alphabet? Why are you still positive about it?
Bill Ackman
(00:24:53)
Sure. So it’s a business we’ve admired as a firm for, whatever, 15 years, but rarely got to a price that we felt we could own it. Because again, the expectations were so high and price really matters. Really the sort of AI scare, I would call it… Microsoft comes out with ChatGPT, they do an amazing demonstration. People like this most incredible product. And Google, which had been working on AI even earlier, obviously… The Microsoft was behind in AI. It was really their ChatGPT deal that gave them a market presence. And then Google does this fairly disastrous demonstration of Bard and the world says, “Oh my god, Google’s fallen behind in AI. AI is the future.” Stock gets crushed. Google gets to a price around 15 times earnings, which for a business of this quality is an extremely, extremely low price. And our view on Google… One way to think about it, when a business becomes a verb, that’s usually pretty good sign about the moat around the business.

(00:25:55)
So you’d open your computer and you open your search and very high percentage of the world starts with a Google page in one line where you type in your search. The Google advertising, search, YouTube franchise is one of the most dominant franchises in the world. Very difficult to disrupt, extremely profitable. The world is moving from offline advertising to online advertising. And that trend, I think, continues. Why? Because you can actually see whether your ads work. They used to say about advertising, “You spend a fortune and you just don’t know which 50% of it works, but you just sort of spend the money because you know ultimately that’s going to bring in the customer.” And now with online advertising, you can see with granularity which dollars I’m spending… When people click on the search term and end up buying something and I pay, it’s a very high return on investment for the advertiser and they really dominate that business.

(00:26:53)
Now, AI, of course, is a risk. If all of a sudden people start searching or asking questions of ChatGPT and don’t start with the Google search bar, that’s a risk to the company. And so our view, based on work we had done and talked to industry experts, is that Google, by virtue of the investment they’ve made the time, the energy that people put into it, we felt their AI capabilities were, if anything, potentially greater than Microsoft ChatGPT and that the market had overreacted. And because Google is a big company, global business regulators scrutinized it incredibly carefully. They couldn’t take some of the same liberties a startup like OpenAI did in releasing a product. And I think Google took a more cautious approach in releasing an early version of Bard in terms of its capabilities. And that led the world to believe that they were behind.

(00:27:46)
And we ultimately concluded, if anything, they’re tied or ahead and you’re paying nothing for that potential business. And they also have huge advantages by virtue… If you think of all the data Google has, the search data, all the various applications, email and otherwise, and the Google suite of products, it’s an incredible data set. So they have more training data than pretty much any company in the world. They have incredible engineers, they have enormous financial resources. So that was kind of the bet. And we still think it’s probably the cheapest of the big seven companies in terms of the price you’re paying for the business relative to its current earnings. It also is a business that has a lot of potential for efficiency. Sometimes when you have this enormously profitable dominant company… All of the technology companies in the post March ’20 world grew enormously in terms of their teams and they probably overhired.

(00:28:41)
And so you’ve seen the Facebooks of the world and now even Google starting to get a little more efficient in terms of their operation. So we paid a low multiple for the business. One way to think about the value of the business is the price you pay for the earnings or alternatively what’s the yield? If you flip over the price over the earnings, it gives you kind of the yield of the business. So a 15 multiple is about almost a seven and a half percent yield. And that earnings yield is growing over time as the business grows. Compare it to what you can earn lending your money to the government, 4%, that’s a very attractive going in yield.

(00:29:18)
And then there’s all kinds of, what we call, optionality in all the various businesses and investments they’ve made that are losing money. They’ve got a cloud business that’s growing very rapidly, but they’re investing basically a hundred percent of the profits from that business and growth. So you’re in that earnings number, you’re not seeing any earnings from the cloud business, and they’re one of the top cloud players. So very interesting, generally well-managed company with incredible assets and resources and dominance, and it has no debt. It’s got a ton of cash. And so pretty good story.

AI

Lex Fridman
(00:29:51)
Is there something fundamentally different about AI that makes all of this more complicated, which is the exponential possibilities of the kinds of products and impact that AI could create when you’re looking at Meta, Microsoft, Alphabet, Google, all these companies, xAI, or maybe startups? Is there some more risk introduced by the possibilities of AI?
Bill Ackman
(00:30:20)
Absolutely. That’s a great question. Investing is about finding companies that can’t be disrupted. AI is the ultimate disruptable asset or technology. And that’s what makes investing treacherous, is that you own a business that’s enormously profitable, management gets, if you will, fat and happy, and then a new technology emerges that just takes away all their profitability. And AI is this incredibly powerful tool, which is why every business is saying, “How can I use AI in my business to make us more profitable, more successful, grow faster, and also disrupt or protect ourself from the incomings?” It’s a bit like… Buffett talks about a great business is like a cast…
Bill Ackman
(00:31:00)
It’s a bit like Buffett talks about a great business, like a castle surrounded by this really wide moat but you have all these barbarians trying to get in and steal the princess. And it happens. Kodak, for example, was an amazing, incredibly dominant company until it disappeared. Polaroid, this incredible technology. And that’s why we have tended to stay away from companies that are technology companies because technology companies generally… The world is such a dynamic place that someone’s always working on a better version. And Kodak was caught up in the analog film world and then the world changed.
Lex Fridman
(00:31:40)
Well, Google was pretty fat and happy until ChatGPT came out.
Bill Ackman
(00:31:44)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(00:31:44)
How would you rate their ability to wake up, lose weight, and be less happy and aggressively rediscover their search for happiness?
Bill Ackman
(00:31:55)
I think you’ve seen a lot of that in the last year. And I would say some combination of embarrassment and pride are huge motivators for everyone from Sergey Brin, to the management of the company.
Lex Fridman
(00:32:10)
And Demis Hassabis threw them into the picture and all of DeepMind teams, and the unification of teams and all the shakeups. It was interesting to watch the chaos. I love it. I love it when everybody freaks out. Like you said, partly embarrassment, and partly that competitive drive that drives engineers, is great. I can’t wait to see what… They’ve [inaudible 00:32:31] a lot of improvement in the product, let’s see where it goes. You mentioned management. How do you analyze the governance structure and the individual humans that are the managers of a company?
Bill Ackman
(00:32:42)
So as I like to say, incentives drive all human behavior and that certainly applies in the business world. So understanding the people and what drives them, and what the actual financial and other incentives of a business, are very important part of the analysis for investing in a company. And you can learn a lot… I mentioned before, one great way to learn about a business is go back a decade and read everything that management has written about the business, and see what they’ve done over time. See what they’ve said…

(00:33:12)
Conference calls are actually relatively recent. When I started in the business, there weren’t conference call transcripts. Now you have a written record of everything management has said in response to questions from analysts, at conferences and otherwise. And so just you learn a lot about people by listening to what they say, how they answer questions, and ultimately their track record for doing what they say they’re going to do. Do they under promise and over deliver? Do they over promise and under deliver? Do they say what they’re going to do? Do they admit mistakes? Do they build great teams? Do people want to come work for them? Are they able to retain their talent?

(00:33:51)
And then part of it is how much are they running the business for the benefit of the business? How much are they running the business for the benefit of themselves? And that’s the analysis you do.
Lex Fridman
(00:34:03)
Are we talking about CEO, COO? What does management mean? How deep does it go?
Bill Ackman
(00:34:09)
Sure. Very senior management matters enormously. We use the Chipotle example. Steve Ells, great entrepreneur. Business got to a scale he really couldn’t run it. We helped the company recruit a guy named Brian Niccol, and he was considered the best person in the quick service industry. He came in and completely rebuilt the company. Actually we moved the company, Chipotle was moved to California. And sometimes one way to redo the culture of a company is just to move it geographically, and then you can reboot the business.

(00:34:40)
But a great leader has great followership. Over the course of their career, they’ll have a team they’ve built that will come follow them into the next opportunity. But the key is really the top person matters enormously, and then it’s who they recruit. You recruit an A-plus leader and they’re going to recruit other A- type people. You recruit a B-leader, you’re not going to recruit any great talent beneath them.

Warren Buffet

Lex Fridman
(00:35:06)
You mentioned Warren Buffett. You said you admire him as an investor. What do you find most interesting and powerful about his approach? What aspects of his approach to investing do you also practice?
Bill Ackman
(00:35:19)
Sure. So most of what I’ve learned in the investment business, I’ve learned from Warren Buffett, he’s been my great professor of this business. My first book I read in the business was the Ben Graham Intelligent Investor, but fairly quickly you get to learn about Warren Buffett and I started by reading the Berkshire Hathaway annual reports. And then I eventually got the Buffett partnership letters that you could see, which are an amazing read to go back to the mid 1950s and read what he wrote to his limited partners when he first started out and just follow that trajectory over a long period of time. So what’s remarkable about him is one, duration, right? He’s still at it at 93. Two, it takes a very long-term view, but a big thing that you learn from him investing requires is incredible, dispassionate, unemotional quality. You have to be extremely economically rational, which is not a basic, it’s not something you learn in the jungle.

(00:36:17)
I don’t think it’s something that… If you think about surviving the jungle, the lion shows up and everyone starts running, you run with them. That does not work well in markets. In fact, you generally have to do the opposite, right? When the lemmings are running over the cliff, that’s the time where you’re facing the other direction and you’re running the other direction, i.e, you’re stepping in, you’re buying stocks at really low prices. Buffett’s been great at that and great at teaching about what he calls temperament, which is this sort of emotional or unemotional quality that you need to be able to dispassionately look at the world and say, “Okay, is this a real risk? Are people overreacting?” People tend to get excited about investments when stocks are going up and they get depressed when they’re going down. And I think that’s just inherently human. You have to reverse that. You have to get excited when things get cheaper and you got to get concerned when things get more expensive.

Psychology of investing

Lex Fridman
(00:37:15)
You’ve been a part of some big battles, some big losses, some big wins. It’s been a roller coaster. So in terms of temperament psychologically, how do you not let that break you? How do you maintain a calm demeanor and avoid running with a lemmings?
Bill Ackman
(00:37:36)
I think it’s something you learn over time. A key success factor is you want to have enough money in the bank that you’re going to survive regardless of what’s going on with volatility in markets, people who… One, you shouldn’t borrow money. So if you borrow money, you own stocks on margin, markets are going down and you have your livelihood at risk. It’s very difficult to be rational. So key is getting yourself to a place where you’re financially secure, you’re not going to lose your house. That’s kind of a key thing. And then also doing your homework.

(00:38:15)
Stocks can trade at any price in the short term. And if you know what a business is worth and you understand the management and you know it extremely well, it’s not nearly as… It doesn’t bother you when a stock price goes down or it has much less impact on you because again, as Mr. Graham said, the short term, the markets are voting machine. You have a bunch of lemmings voting one direction that’s concerning. But if it’s a great business, doesn’t have a lot of debt and people are going to just listen to more music next year than this year, you know you’re going to do well. So it’s a bit some combination of being personally secure and also just knowing what you own and over time you build callouses, I would say.
Lex Fridman
(00:38:58)
So psychologically, just as a human being, speaking of lines and gazelles and all this kind of stuff, is it as simple as just being financially secure? Is there some just human qualities that you have to be born with slash develop?
Bill Ackman
(00:39:16)
I think so. I think now I’m a pretty emotional person I would say, or I feel pretty strong emotions, but not in investing. I’m remarkably immune to volatility and that’s a big advantage and it took some time for me to develop that.
Lex Fridman
(00:39:33)
So you weren’t born with that, you think?
Bill Ackman
(00:39:35)
No.
Lex Fridman
(00:39:35)
So being emotional, do you want to respond to volatility?
Bill Ackman
(00:39:40)
Yeah, and it’s a bit… Again, you can learn a lot from other people’s experience. It’s one of the few businesses where you can learn an enormous amount by reading about other periods in history following Buffett’s career, the mistakes he made. If you’re investing a lot of capital, every one of your mistakes is going to be big, right? So we’ve made big mistakes. The good news is that the vast majority of things we’ve done have worked out really well. And so that also gives you confidence over time. But because we make very few investments, we own eight things today or seven companies of that matter, if we get one wrong, it’s going to be big news. And so the other nature of our business you have to be comfortable with is a lot of public scrutiny, a lot of public criticism. And that requires some experience. I call it that.
Lex Fridman
(00:40:35)
I think we’ll talk about some of that. Financially secure is something I believe also recommend for even just everyday investors. Is there some general advice from the things you’ve been talking about that applies to everyday investors?
Bill Ackman
(00:40:50)
Sure. So never invest money you can’t afford to lose. Where if you’d lost this money, you lose your house, et cetera. So being in a place where you’re investing money that you don’t care about the price in the short term, it’s money for your retirement, and you take a really long-term view, I think that’s key. Never investing, will you borrow money against your securities? The markets offer you the opportunity to leverage your investment and in most worlds you’ll be okay, except if there’s a financial crisis or a nuclear device gets detonated, God forbid somewhere in the world or there’s an unexpected war or someone kills a leader unexpectedly, things happen that can change the course of history and markets react very negatively to those kinds of events.

(00:41:46)
And you can own the greatest business in the world trading for a hundred dollars a share, and next moment it could be 50. So as long as you don’t borrow against securities, you own really high quality businesses and it’s not money that you need in the short term, then you can actually be thoughtful about it. And that is a huge advantage. The vast majority of investors, it seems tend to be the ones that panic and the downturns get over related and when markets are doing well.
Lex Fridman
(00:42:14)
So be able to think long-term and be sufficiently financially secure such that you can afford to think long-term.
Bill Ackman
(00:42:22)
Now Buffett is the ultimate long-term thinker and just the decisions he makes, the consistency of the decisions he’s made over time and fitting into that sort of long-term framework is a very, very educational, let’s put it that way, for learning about this business.
Lex Fridman
(00:42:42)
So you mentioned eight companies, but what do you think about mutual funds for everyday investors that diversify across a larger number of companies?
Bill Ackman
(00:42:53)
I think there are very few mutual funds. There are thousands and thousands of mutual funds. There are very few that earn their keep in terms of the fees they charge. They tend to be too diversified and too short-term. And you’re often much better off just buying an index fund. And many of them perform, if you look carefully at their portfolios are not so different from the underlying index itself and you tend to pay a much higher fee. Now, all of that being said, there’s some very talented mutual fund managers. A guy named Will Danoff at Fidelity has had a great record over a long period of time. The famous Peter Lynch, Ron Barron, another great long-term growth stock investor. So there’s some great mutual funds, but I put them in the handful versus the thousands. And if you’re in the thousands, I’d rather someone bought just an index fund basically.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:54)
Yeah, index funds. But what would be the leap for an everyday investor to go to investing in a small number of companies like two, three, four, five companies?
Bill Ackman
(00:44:05)
I even recommend for individual investors to invest in a dozen companies, you don’t get that much more benefit of diversification going from a dozen to 25 or even 50. Most of the benefits of diversification come in the first, call it 10 or 12. And if you’re investing in businesses that don’t have a lot of debt, they’re businesses that you can understand yourself, you understand… Actually individual investors did a much better job analyzing Tesla than the so-called professional investors or analysts, the vast majority of them. So if it’s a business you understand, if you bought a Tesla, you understand the product and its appeal to consumers, it’s a good place to start when you’re analyzing a company.

(00:44:47)
So I would invest in things you can understand, that’s kind of a key. You like Chipotle, you understand why they’re successful. You can go there every week and you can monitor. Is anything changing? How’s Chicken al Pastor, is that a good upgrade from the basic chicken? The drink offering is improving. The store is clean. I think you should invest in companies you really understand, simple businesses where you can predict with a high degree of confidence what it’s going to look like over time. And if you do that in a not particularly concentrated fashion and you don’t borrow money against your securities, you’ll probably do much better than your typical mutual fund.
Lex Fridman
(00:45:26)
Yeah, it’s interesting. Consumers that love a thing are actually good analysts of that thing, or I guess a good starting point.
Bill Ackman
(00:45:33)
And by the way, there’s much more information available today. When I was first investing, literally we had people faxing us documents from the SEC filings in Washington, D.C. Now everything’s available online, conference call transcripts are free. You have AI, you have unlimited data and all kinds of message boards and Reddit forums and things where people are sharing advice and everyone has their own… By virtue of their career or experience, they’ll know about an industry or a business and that gives them… I would take advantage of your own competitive advantages.
Lex Fridman
(00:46:12)
I’m just afraid if I invest in Chipotle, I’ll be analyzing every little change of menu from a financial perspective and just be very critical.
Bill Ackman
(00:46:20)
If it’s going to affect your experience, I wouldn’t buy the stock.
Lex Fridman
(00:46:24)
Yeah, I mean I should also say that I am somebody that emotionally does respond to volatility, which is why I’ve never bought index funds and I just notice myself psychologically being affected by the ups and downs of the market. I want to tune out because if I’m at all tuned in, it has a negative impact on my life.
Bill Ackman
(00:46:43)
Yeah, that’s really important.

Activist investing

Lex Fridman
(00:46:45)
Can you explain what activist investing is? You’ve been talking about investing and then looking at companies when they’re struggling, stepping in and reconfiguring things within that company and helping it become great. So that’s part of it, but let’s just zoom out. What’s this idea of activist investing?
Bill Ackman
(00:47:05)
I think recently in the last couple of days I read an article saying that more than 50% of the capital in the world today invests in the stock markets passive indexed money. And that’s the most passive form, right? So if you think about an index fund, a machine buys a fixed set of securities in certain proportion. There’s no human judgment at all, and there’s no real person behind it, in a way. They never take steps to improve a business. They just quietly own securities. What we do is we invest our capital in a handful of things. We get to know them really, really well because you’re going to put 20% of your assets in something, you need to know it really well. But once you become a big holder and if you’ve got some thoughts on how to make a business more valuable, you can do more than just be a passive investor.

(00:47:58)
So our strategy is built upon finding great companies in some cases that have lost their way and then helping them succeed. And we can do that with ideas from outside the boardroom. Sometimes we take a seat on a board or more than one, and we work with the best management teams in the world to help these businesses succeed. So when I first went into this business, no one knew who we were and we didn’t have that much money. And so to influence what was to us a big company, we had to make a fair bit more noise, right? So we would buy a stake, we’d announce it publicly, we’d attempt to engage with management. The first activist investment we made at Pershing Square was Wendy’s. I couldn’t get the CEO to ever return my call. He didn’t return my call. Actually, in that case, our idea was Wendy’s owned a company called Tim Hortons, which was this coffee donut chain, and you could buy Wendy’s for basically $5 billion and they owned a hundred percent of Tim Hortons, which itself was worth more than 5 billion.

(00:49:03)
So you could literally buy Wendy’s, separate Tim Hortons and get Wendy’s for negative value. That seemed like a pretty good opportunity even though the business wasn’t doing that well. So we bought the stake, called the CEO, couldn’t get a meeting, nothing. So we hired actually Blackstone, which at that time had an investment bank and we hired them to do what’s called a fairness opinion of what Wendy’s would be worth if they followed our advice and they agreed to do it, paid them a fee for it. And then we mailed in a letter with a copy of the fairness opinion saying Wendy’s would basically be worth 80% more if they did what we said. And six weeks later they did what we said. So that’s activism, at least an early form of activism. With that kind of under our belt, we had a little more credibility and now we started to take things and stakes in companies.

(00:49:48)
The media would pay attention. So the media became kind of an important partner and some combination of shame, embarrassment and opportunity motivated management teams to do the right thing. And then beyond that, there’s certain steps you can take if management’s recalcitrant and the shareholders are on your side. But it’s a bit like running for office. You’ve got to get all the constituents to support you and your ideas. And if they support you and your ideas, you can overthrow, if you will, the board of a company. You bring in new talent and then take over the management of a business. And that’s the most extreme form of activism. So that’s kind of the early days, and what we did. And a lot of the early things that we did were, what we call sort of like investment banking activism where we’d go in and recommend something, a good investment bank would’ve recommended, and if they do it, we make a bunch of money.

(00:50:38)
And then we moved on to the next one. And then we realized an investment in a company called General Growth was the first time we took a board seat on a company. And there it was some financial restructuring and also an opportunity to improve the operations of the business, sit on the board of a company. And that was one of the best investments we ever made. And we said, “Okay, we can do more than just be an outside the boardroom investor and we can get involved in helping select the right management teams and helping guide the right management teams.” And then we’ve done that over years. And then I would say the last seven years we haven’t had to be an activist. An activist is generally someone who’s outside banging on the door trying to get in. We’re sort of built enough credibility that they open the door and they say, “Hey, Bill, what ideas do you have? So welcome. Would you like to join the board?”

(00:51:27)
We’re treated differently today than we were in the beginning. And that is… I would say some people might just call it being an engaged owner. And by the way, that’s the way investing was done in the Andrew Carnegie, JPMorgan days 150 years ago. You had these iconic business leaders that would own 20% of US steel, and when things would go wrong, they’d replace the board and the management and fix them. And over time, we went to a world where mutual funds were created in the 1920s, ’30s, index funds with Vanguard and others, and that all these controlling shareholders gave their stock to society or their children and multiple generations. And they were no longer controlling owners of businesses or very few. And that led to under performance and the opportunity for activists over time. And what activism has done, and I think we’ve helped lead this movement, is it restored the balance of power between the owners of the business and the management of the company. And that’s been a very good thing for the performance of the US stock market actually.
Lex Fridman
(00:52:33)
So the owners meaning the shareholders?
Bill Ackman
(00:52:35)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(00:52:35)
And so there’s a more direct channel of communication with activists investing between the shareholders and the people running the company?
Bill Ackman
(00:52:44)
Yes. So activists generally never own more than five or 10% of a business. So they don’t have control. So the way they get influence is they have to convince the other, but they have to get to sort of a majority of the other shareholders to support them. And if they can get that kind of support, they can behave almost like a controlling shareholder. And that’s how it works.
Lex Fridman
(00:53:06)
So the running of companies, according to Bill Ackman is more democratic now.
Bill Ackman
(00:53:11)
It is. It is. But you need some thought leaders. So activists are kind of thought leaders. Because they can spend the time and the money. A retail investor that owns a thousand shares doesn’t have the resources or the time, they got a day job. Whereas an activist day job is finding the handful of things where there are opportunities.
Lex Fridman
(00:53:30)
So on average is a good to have such an engaged, powerful, influential investor helping control direct the direction of a company.
Bill Ackman
(00:53:43)
It depends who that investor is, but generally I think it’s a good thing. And that’s why one of the problems with being CEO of a company today and having a very diversified shareholder base is the kind of short-term, long-term balance. And you have investors that have all different interests in terms of what they want to achieve and when they want it achieved. And CEO of a new company… A new CEO of an old company, let’s say, hasn’t had the chance to develop the credibility to make the kind of longer-term decisions and can be stuck in a cycle of being judged on a quarterly basis.

(00:54:19)
And the best businesses are forever assets and decisions you make now have impact three, four or five years from now, in order to make… And sometimes there are decisions we make that have the effect of reducing the earnings of a company in the short-term because in the long term it’s going to make the business much more valuable. But sometimes it’s hard to have that kind of credibility when you’re a new CEO of a company. So when you have a major owner that’s respected by other shareholders sitting on the board saying, “Hey, the CEO is doing the right thing and making this expensive investment in a new factory, we’re spending more money on R&D because we’re developing something that’s going to pay off over time.” That large owner on the board can help buy the time necessary for management to behave in a longer term way. And that’s, I think, good for all the shareholders.
Lex Fridman
(00:55:07)
So that’s the good story. But can it get bad? Can you have a CEO who is a visionary and sees the long-term future of a company and an investor come in and have very selfish interest in just making more money in the short term and therefore destroy and manipulate the opinions of the shareholders and other people on the board in order to sink the company, maybe increase the price, but destroy the possibility of long-term value?
Bill Ackman
(00:55:41)
It could theoretically happen, but again, the activist in your example, generally doesn’t own a lot of stock. The shareholder basis today, the biggest shareholders are these index funds that are forever, right? The BlackRock, Vanguard, State Street, their ownership stakes are just at this point only growing because of the inflows of capital they have from shareholders. So they have to think or they should think very long-term and they’re going to be very skeptical of someone coming in with a short-term idea that drives the stock price up in the next six months, but impairs the company’s long-term ability to compete. And basically that ownership group prevents this kind of activity from really happening.
Lex Fridman
(00:56:19)
So people are generally skeptical of short-term activist investors?
Bill Ackman
(00:56:25)
Yes, and they’re very few. I don’t really know any short-term activist investors.
Lex Fridman
(00:56:30)
That’s a hopeful-
Bill Ackman
(00:56:31)
Not ones with credibility.

General Growth Properties

Lex Fridman
(00:56:33)
You mentioned general growth. I read somewhere called arguably one of the best hedge fund trades of all time. So I guess it went from $60 million to over 3 billion.
Bill Ackman
(00:56:47)
It was a good one.
Lex Fridman
(00:56:48)
All right.
Bill Ackman
(00:56:49)
But it wasn’t a trade. I wouldn’t describe it as a trade. A trade is something you buy and you flip. This is something where we made the investment initially in November of 2008, and we still own a company. We spun off of general growth and it’s now 15 years later.
Lex Fridman
(00:57:05)
Can you describe what went into making that decision to actually increase the value of the company?
Bill Ackman
(00:57:10)
Sure. So this was at the time of the financial crisis, circa November 2008. Real estate’s always been a kind of sector that I’ve been interested in. I began my career in the real estate business working for my dad, actually arranging mortgages for real estate developers. So I have kind of deep ties and interest in the business and General Growth was the second-largest shopping mall company in the country. Simon Properties many people have heard of, General Growth was number two. They owned some of the best malls in the country. And at that time, people thought of shopping malls as these non disruptible things. Again, we talk about disruption. Malls have been disrupted in many ways and General Growth stock… General Growth the company, the CFO in particular was very aggressive in the way that he borrowed money. And he borrowed money from a kind of Wall Street, not long-term mortgages, but generally relatively short-term mortgages.

(00:58:05)
It was pretty aggressive. As the value went up, he would borrow more and more against the assets and that helped the short-term results of the business. The problem was during the financial crisis, the market for what’s called CMBS, commercial mortgage backed securities basically shut. And the company, because its debt was relatively short term, had a lot of big maturities coming up that they had no ability to refinance. And the market said, “Oh, my god, the lenders are going to foreclose and the shareholders going to get wiped, the company’s going to go bankrupt, they’re going to get wiped out.” The stock went from $63 a share to 34 cents. And there was a family, the Bucksbaum Family owned I think about 25% of the company, and they had a 5 billion of stock that was worth 25 billion or something by the time, we bought a stake in the business.

(00:58:50)
And what interested me was I thought the assets were worth substantially more than the liabilities. The company had 27 billion of debt and had a hundred million dollars value of the equity down from 20 billion. Okay? And one that sort of an interesting place to start with a stock down 99%. But the fundamental drivers, the mall business are occupancy. How occupied are the malls, occupancy was up year-on-year between ’07 and ’08. Interestingly, net operating income, which is kind of a measure of cash flow from the malls, that was up year-on-year. So kind of the underlying fundamentals were doing fine. The only problem they had is they had billions of dollars of debt that they had to repay, they couldn’t repay. And if you kind of examine the bankruptcy code, it’s precisely designed for a situation like this where it’s this resting place you can go to restructure your business.

(00:59:48)
Now the problem was that every other company that had gone bankrupt, the shareholders got wiped out. And so the market’s seeing every previous example, the shareholders get wiped out. The assumption is this stock is going to go to zero. But that’s not what the bankruptcy code says. What the bankruptcy code says is that the value gets portioned based on value. And if you could prove to a judge that there was the assets worth more than a liabilities, then the shareholders actually get to keep their investment in the company. And that was the bet we made. And so we stepped into the market and we bought 25% of the company in the open market for… We had to pay up. It started out at 34 cents, I think there were 300 million shares. So it was at a hundred million dollars value by the time we were done. We paid an average of… We paid 60 million for 25% of the business, so about $240 million for the equity of the company.

(01:00:38)
And then we had to get on the board to convince the directors the thing to do. And the board was in complete panic, didn’t know what to do, spending a ton of money on advisors. And I was a shareholder activist four years into Pershing Square, and no one had any idea what we were doing. They thought we were crazy. Every day we’d go into the market and we’d buy this penny stock and we’d file what’s called a 13D, every 1% increase in our stake. And people just thought we were crazy. We’re buying stock in a company that’s going to go bankrupt. “Bill, you’re going to lose all your money. Run.” And I said, “Well, wait, bankruptcy code says that if it’s more asset value than liabilities, we should be fine.” And the key moment, if you’re looking for fun moments is there’s a woman named Maddie Bucksbaum who’s from the Bucksbaum family.

(01:01:27)
And her cousin John was chairman of the board, CEO of the company. And as she calls me after we disclose our stake in the company, she’s like, “Bill Ackman, I’m really glad to see you here.” And I met her like… I don’t think it was a date, but I kind of met her in a social context when I was like 25 or something. And she said, “Look, I’m really glad to see you here and if there’s anything I can do to help you, call me.” I said, “Sure.” We kept trying to get on the board of the company. They wouldn’t invite us on, couldn’t really run a proxy contest, not with a company going bankrupt. And their advisors actually were Goldman Sachs…
Bill Ackman
(01:02:00)
… not with a company going bankrupt. And their advisors actually were Goldman Sachs and they’re like, “You don’t want the fox in the henhouse.” And they were listening to their advisors. I called Maddie up and I said, “Maddie, I need to get on the board of the company to help.” And she says, “You know what? I will call my cousin and I’ll get it done.” She calls back a few hours later, “You’ll be going onto the board.” I don’t know what she said because …
Lex Fridman
(01:02:23)
Well, she was convincing.
Bill Ackman
(01:02:25)
Next thing you know, I’m invited on the board of the company, and the board is talking about the old equity of general growth. Old equity is what you talk about, “The shareholders are getting wiped out.” I said, “No, no, no. This board represents the current equity of the company and I’m a major shareholder. John’s a major shareholder. There’s plenty of asset value here. This company should be able to be restructured for the benefit of shareholders.” And we led a restructuring for the benefit of shareholders, and it took, let’s say eight months. And the company emerged from Chapter 11. We made an incremental investment into the company, and the shareholders kept the vast majority of their investment. All the creditors got their face amount of their investment par plus accrued interest, and it was a great outcome. All the employees kept their jobs, the mall stayed open, there was no liquidation.

(01:03:14)
The bankruptcy system worked the way it should. I was in court all the time and the first meeting with the judge, the judge is like, “Look, this would never have happened were it not for a financial crisis.” And once the judge said that, I knew we were going to be fine, because the company had really not done anything fundamentally wrong, maybe a little too aggressive in how they borrowed money. And stock went from 34 cents to $31 a share. And actually fun little anecdote, we made a lot of people a lot of money who followed us into it. I got a lot of nice thank you notes, which you get on occasion in this business, believe it or not. And then one day I get a voicemail, this is when there was something called voicemail, probably a few years later. And it’s a guy with a very thick Jamaican accent leaving a message for Bill Ackman.

(01:04:01)
I return all my calls, called the guy back. I said, “Hi, it’s Bill Ackman. I’m just returning your call.” He says, “Oh, Mr. Ackman, thank you so much for calling me.” And I said, “Oh, how can I help?” He says, “I wanted to thank you.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I saw you on CNBC a couple of years ago and you were talking about this general growth and the stock.” I said, “Where was the stock at the time?” He said, “It’s 60 cents or something like this. And I bought a lot of stock.” And I’m like, “Well, how much did you invest?” ” Oh, I invest all of my money in the company.” And he was a New York City taxi driver and he invested like $50,000 or something like this at 60 cents a share. And he was still holding it. And he went into retirement and he made 50 times his money. And those are the moments that you feel pretty good about investing.
Lex Fridman
(01:04:53)
What gave you confidence through that? Went to a penny stock, and I’m sure you were getting a lot of naysayers and people saying that, “This is crazy.”
Bill Ackman
(01:05:01)
It’s the same thing. You just do the work. We got a lot of pushback from our investors actually because we had never invested in a bankrupt company before. It’s a field called distressed investing, and they’re dedicated distressed investors and we weren’t considered one of them. “Bill, what are you doing? You don’t know anything about distressed investing. You don’t know anything about bankruptcy investing.” But I can read.
Lex Fridman
(01:05:23)
And you learned.
Bill Ackman
(01:05:24)
And I learned. And it sometimes is very helpful not to be a practitioner, an expert in something because you get used to the conventional wisdom. And so we just abstractly stepped back and look at the facts and it was just a really interesting setup for one of the best investments we ever made.
Lex Fridman
(01:05:43)
How hard is it to learn some of the legal aspects of this? Like you mentioned bankruptcy code. I imagine is very dense language and dense ideas and loopholes and all that kind of stuff. If you’re just stepping in and you’ve never done distressed investing, how hard is it to figure out?
Bill Ackman
(01:06:01)
It’s not that hard. No, it’s not that hard.
Lex Fridman
(01:06:04)
Okay.
Bill Ackman
(01:06:05)
I literally read a book on distressed investing. Ben Branch or something on distressed investing.
Lex Fridman
(01:06:11)
You were able to pick up the intuition from that. Just all the basic skills involved, the basic facts to know, all that kind of stuff?
Bill Ackman
(01:06:19)
Most of the world’s knowledge has already been written somewhere. You just got to read the right books. And also had great lawyers. Built up some great relationships. We work with Sullivan & Cromwell, and the lawyer there named Joe Schenker who I met earlier in my career. Pershing Square was actually my second act in the hedge fund business. I started a fund called Gotham Partners when I was 26. One of my early investments was a company called Rockefeller Center Properties that was heading for bankruptcy. And the lawyer on the other side representing Goldman Sachs was a guy named Joe Schenker. He was an obvious phone call because we had yet another real estate bankruptcy.

(01:06:54)
And that one we did very well, but I missed the big opportunity and I suffered severe psychological torture every time I walked by Rockefeller Center because we knew more about that property, anyone else, but I knew less about deal making and didn’t have the resources, and I was 28 years old or 27. And they hired a better lawyer than we did, and they outsmarted us on that one in a way. I said, “Okay, I’m going to go hire this guy the next time round.”
Lex Fridman
(01:07:23)
Okay. We’ll probably talk about Rockefeller Center and some failures, but first you said Fox in the henhouse, something that the board and the chairman were worried about. Why would they call you a fox? You keep saying activist investing, there’s nothing to worry about. It’s always good, mostly good. But that expression applied in this context, they were still worried about that.
Bill Ackman
(01:07:51)
Sure.
Lex Fridman
(01:07:51)
And so there’s a million questions here, but first of all, what is the process of getting on the board look like?
Bill Ackman
(01:07:59)
A board can always admit a member at any time in their discretion for a US company. Maybe there’s some jurisdiction where you need a shareholder vote, but in most cases a board can vote on any director that they want. If the board doesn’t invite you to the party, you have to apply to be a member in effect, and basically it’s the process of ultimately running a slate for a meeting where you propose a … Any shareholder can propose to be on a board of a company if they own a one share of stock in the business. And getting your name in the materials they sent to shareholders, those rules were written in a way that were very unfavorable and very difficult to get in the door.

(01:08:43)
And those rules have been changed very recently where the company now has to include really all the candidates and the materials they sent to shareholders and the shareholders pick the best ones. When we ran proxy contests in the past, that was not the case. And so you have to spend a lot of money, mostly mailing fees and all kinds of other legal and other expenses to let everyone know you’re running, like running a political campaign. And then you got to run around and meet with the big shareholders, fly around the country, explain your case to them, and then there’s a shareholder meeting. And if you get a majority of the votes, you get on.
Lex Fridman
(01:09:18)
What’s this proxy contest/battle idea, what’s the-
Bill Ackman
(01:09:23)
The battle comes when they don’t want you to get on. And a lot of that has to do with I would say, pride, normal human stuff. A lot of times a board of an underperforming company doesn’t want to admit that they’ve underperformed. And boards of directors 20 years ago when we started Pershing Square, were pretty cushy jobs. Sit on a board of a company, you play golf with the CEO at nice golf courses, you make a few hundred thousand dollars a year to go to four meetings. It was kind of a rubber stamp world where, at the end of the day, the CEO really ran the show. Once shareholders could actually dislodge board members and they could lose their seats, and that’s really the rise of shareholder activism, boards started taking their responsibilities much more seriously. Because directors are typically … in many cases, they’re retired CEOs. This is how they’re making a living in the later part of their career.

(01:10:20)
They’ll sit on four boards, they collect a million, a million and a half dollars a year in director’s fees. If they get thrown off the board by the shareholders, that’s embarrassing obviously and it affects their ability to get on other boards. Again, incentives, as I said earlier, drive all human behavior. The incentives of directors, they want to preserve their board seats. Now the directors on board serve in various roles. The most vulnerable ones are ones who, for example, chair a compensation committee. And if they put in a bad plan or they overpaid management, they’re subject to attack by shareholders. But these contests are not dissimilar to political contests, where there’s mudslinging and the other side puts out false information about you and you have to respond and they’re spending the shareholders’ money, so they have sort of unlimited resources. And you’re spending your and your investors’ money, when you’re a small firm, finite resources. They can outspend you, they can sue you, they can try to jigger the mechanics in such a way that you’re going to lose. There’s some unfortunate stuff that’s happened in the past, some manipulative stuff.
Lex Fridman
(01:11:24)
Also some stuff that’s public like in the press and all this kind of stuff?
Bill Ackman
(01:11:27)
Oh, of course. There’ll be articles about … In the dirty days where they would go through your trash and make sure that you’re not sleeping around and things like this. But that’s okay. I can survive extreme scrutiny because I’ve been through this for a long time.
Lex Fridman
(01:11:49)
You’re saying the fat and happy hens can get very wolf-like when the fox is trying to break in? Is this how we extend this metaphor?
Bill Ackman
(01:11:59)
Well, the fox is a threat to the hens.
Lex Fridman
(01:12:03)
But the charismatic fox just explained to me why the fox is good for everybody in the henhouse.
Bill Ackman
(01:12:10)
At the end of the day, it’s actually very good on a board to have someone … There are many examples over time and some handful of high profile ones where the board fought tooth and nail to keep the activists off the board. And then once the activists got on the board and they said, “This guy’s not so bad after all. The shareholders voted him on. He’s got some decent ideas and let’s all work together to have this work out.” And so there are very few cases where after the contest … And by the way, sometimes you have to replace the entire board. We’ve done that. But in most cases you got a couple of seats on the board, and it’s just you want to build a board comprised of diverse points of view. And that’s how you get to the truth.

Canadian Pacific Railway

Lex Fridman
(01:12:50)
What was the most dramatic battle for the board that you have been a part of?
Bill Ackman
(01:12:55)
The Canadian Pacific Proxy contest. Canadian Pacific was considered the most iconic company in Canada. It literally built the country because the rail that got built over Canada is what united the various provinces into a country. And then over time, because the railroad business is a pretty good business, they built a ton of hotels, they owned a lot of real estate, and it became this massive conglomerate, but it was horribly mismanaged for decades. By the time we got involved, it was by far the worst run railroad in North America. They had the lowest profit margins, they had the lowest growth rate. Every quarter management would make excuses, generally about the weather as to why they underperformed versus … And there there’s a direct competitor, a company called Canadian National, has a rail goes right across the country. And Canadian Pacific would constantly be complaining about the weather.

(01:13:48)
And basically same country, same regions, the tracks weren’t that far apart. But it was a really important company and being on this board was like an honorary thing. And everyone on the board was an icon of Canada. The chairman of the Royal Bank of Canada, the head of the most important privately held grain company, an important collection of big time Canadian executives. Here we were, this is probably about 13 years ago, and still maybe a 44-year-old from New York, not a Canadian basically saying, “This is the worst run railroad North America.” And we bought 12% of the railroad at a really low price and we brought with us to our first meeting, the greatest railroader ever, a guy named Hunter Harrison who had turned around Canadian National. We’re like, “Okay, we’ve got a great asset. We’ve got the greatest railroad CEO of all time. He’s come out of retirement to step in and run the railroad.” And we brought him to the first meeting and they wouldn’t even meet with him, and they certainly weren’t going to consider hiring him. And that led us to a proxy contest.
Lex Fridman
(01:15:01)
And this is where the engine starts churning to figure out how this contest can be won. What’s involved?
Bill Ackman
(01:15:11)
Well the key is we had to one come up with a group of directors who would be willing to step into a battle. And we didn’t want a bunch of New York directors or even American directors, we wanted Canadians. The problem was this was the most iconic company in Canada and we wanted high profile people. We talked to all the high profile people in Canada. Every one of them would say, “Bill, you’re entirely right. This thing is the worst run railroad. It needs to be fixed. But I see John at the club. I see him at the Toronto Club. I can’t do this, but you’re totally right.” And that was the concern because you have to file your materials by a certain day, you got to put together a slate. We needed a big slate because we knew that we had to replace basically all the directors.

(01:15:53)
And then I spoke to a guy who was one of the wealthiest guys in Canada who was on the board at one point in time. And he said, “Bill, I have an idea for you. There’s this woman, Rebecca McDonald, why don’t you give her a call?” And I called Rebecca and she was the first woman to take a company public in Canada as CEO. And she was an anti-establishment, not afraid to take on anything kind of person. And I called her, we had a great conversation and she was in the Dominican Republic at her house and I flew down to see her and she said, “Yeah, I’m all in.” And actually, once we got her, that enabled us to get others. And then we put together our slate and we had some pretty interesting dialogue with the company. They tried to embarrass us all the time.
Lex Fridman
(01:16:42)
In the press publicly? What are talking about?
Bill Ackman
(01:16:44)
Press publicly. At one point I wrote an email saying, “Look, let’s come to peace on this thing, but if we don’t, you’re really forcing my hand and we’re going to have to rent the largest hall in Toronto and invite all the shareholders and it’s going to be embarrassing for management.” And I made reference to some nuclear winter, “Let’s not have it be a nuclear winter.” And they thought they’d embarrass me by releasing the email, but it only inspired us. And we rented the largest hall in Canada and we put up a presentation walking through, “Here’s Canadian National. Here’s Canadian Pacific. Here’s what they said. Here’s what they did.” And then we had Hunter get up who was this incredibly charismatic guy from Tennessee. He’s like a lion, incredibly deep voice, unbelievable track record, incredibly respected guy. It’s like getting Michael Jordan to come out of retirement and come run the company.

(01:17:38)
And Hunter was incredible, and Paul Lau, other members of my team were super engaged. And Canadians are known to be nice, so one of the problems we had is shareholders would never tell management or the board that they were losing. It was not until the night before the meeting when the vote came in, that management realized that they lost. We got 99% of the vote. And they begged us to take a deal. They said, “Look, we’ll resign tonight so that we don’t have to come to the meeting tomorrow.” That’s how embarrassed they were. But that was kind of an interesting one.
Lex Fridman
(01:18:14)
In both this proxy battle and the company itself, this was one of your more successful investments?
Bill Ackman
(01:18:21)
It was. The stock’s up about 10 times and it’s an industrial company. It’s a railroad. It’s not Google. So it’s a great story. And the company’s now run by a guy named Keith Creel. And Keith was Hunter’s protege, and in many ways he’s actually better than Hunter. He’s doing an incredible job. And the sad part here is we did very well, we tripled our money over several years and then I went through a very challenging period because of a couple of bad investments, and we had to sell our Canadian Pacific to raise capital to pay for investors who are leaving. But we had another opportunity to buy it back in the last couple of years. And so we’re now again a major owner of the company. But had we held onto original stock, it would’ve been epic, if you will.
Lex Fridman
(01:19:11)
On this one, you were right.
Bill Ackman
(01:19:13)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(01:19:14)
And I read an article about you, and there’s many articles about you. I read an article that said, Bill is often right, but you approach it with a scorched earth approach that can often do damage.
Bill Ackman
(01:19:30)
I haven’t read the often right article, but the good news is we are often right, and I say we because we’re a team, a small team, but fortunately a very successful one. Our batting average as investors is extremely high. And the good news is our record’s totally public. You can see everything we’ve ever done. But the press doesn’t generally write about the success stories, they write about the failures. And so we’ve had some epic failures, big losses. The good news is they’ve been a tiny minority of the cases now. No one likes to lose money. It’s even worse to lose other people’s money. And I’ve done that occasionally. The good news is if you’ve stuck with us, you’ve done very well over a long time.

OpenAI

Lex Fridman
(01:20:13)
On a small tangent since we were talking about boards. Did you get a chance to see what happened with the OpenAI board? Because I’m talking to Sam Altman soon. Is there any insight you have, just maybe lessons you draw from these kinds of events, especially with an AI technology company, such dramatic things happening?
Bill Ackman
(01:20:34)
Yeah, that was an incredible story. Look, governance really matters, and the governance structure of OpenAI, I think leaves something to be desired. I think Sam’s point was, and maybe Elon Musk’s point originally set up as a nonprofit. And it reminds me actually, I invested in a nonprofit run by a former Facebook founder where he was going to create a Facebook-like entity for nonprofits to promote goodness in the world. And the problem was he couldn’t hire the talent he wanted because he couldn’t grant stock options, he couldn’t pay market salaries. And ultimately he ended up selling the business to a for-profit.

(01:21:14)
It taught me for-profit solutions to problems are much better than nonprofits. And here you had kind of a blend. It was set up as a nonprofit, but I think they found the same thing. They couldn’t hire the talent they wanted without having a for-profit subsidiary. But the nonprofit entity, as I understand it, owns a big chunk of OpenAI, and the investors own a capped interest where their upside is capped and they don’t have representation on the board. And I think that was a setup for a problem, and that’s clearly what happened here.
Lex Fridman
(01:21:49)
And there’s, I guess some kind of complexity in the governance. Because of this nonprofit and cap profit thing, it seems like there’s a bunch of complexity and non-standard aspects to it that perhaps also contributed to the problem?
Bill Ackman
(01:22:08)
Yeah. Governance really matters. Boards of directors really matter. Giving the shareholders the right to have input at least once a year on the structure of the governance of companies is really important. And private venture backed boards are also not ideal. I’m an active investor in ventures, and there are some complicated issues that emerge in private and venture stage companies where board members have somewhat divergent incentives from the long-term owners of a business. And what you see a lot in venture boards is they’re presided over generally by venture capital investors who are big investors in the company. And oftentimes it’s more important to them to have the public perception that they’re good directors so they get the next best deal. If they have a reputation for taking on management too aggressively, word will get out in the small community of founders and they’ll miss the next Google. And so their interests are not just in that particular company. That’s also one of the problems. Again, it all comes back to incentives.
Lex Fridman
(01:23:21)
Can you explain to me the difference venture backed VCs and shareholders? This means before the company goes public?
Bill Ackman
(01:23:29)
Yeah. Private venture backed companies, the boards tend to be very small. It could be a handful of the venture investors and management. They’re often very rarely independent directors. It’s just not an ideal structure.
Lex Fridman
(01:23:43)
Oh, I see. You want independent?
Bill Ackman
(01:23:45)
It’s beneficial to have people who have an economic interest in the business and they care only about the success of that company, as opposed to someone who … If you think about the venture business, getting into the best deals is more important than any one deal. And you see cases where the boards go along with, in some cases, bad behavior on the part of management because they want a reputation for being a founder friendly director. That’s kind of problematic. You don’t have the same issue in public company boards.
Lex Fridman
(01:24:16)
We talked about some of the big wins and your a track record, but you said there were some big losses. What’s the biggest loss of your career?

Biggest loss and lowest point

Bill Ackman
(01:24:27)
Biggest loss in my career is a company called Valiant Pharmaceuticals. We made an investment in business that didn’t meet our core principles. The problem in the pharmaceutical industry, and there are many problems as I’ve learned, is it’s a very volatile business. It’s based on drug discovery. It’s based on predicting the future revenues of a drug before it goes off patent. Lots of complexities. And we thought we had found a pharmaceutical company we could own because of a very unusual founder in the way he approached this business. It was a company where another activist was on the board of directors of the company and governing and overseeing the day-to-day decisions, and we ended up making a passive investment in the company. And up until this point in time, we really didn’t make passive investments, and the company made a series of decisions that were disastrous and then we stepped in to try to solve the problem. It was the first time I ever joined a board, and the mess was much larger than I realized from the outside and then I was kind of stuck. And it was very much a confidence sensitive strategy because they built their business by acquiring pharmaceutical assets, and they often issued stock when they acquired targets. Once the market lost confidence in management, the stock price got crushed and it impaired their ability to continue to acquire low cost drugs. And we lost $4 billion.
Lex Fridman
(01:25:49)
$4 billion.
Bill Ackman
(01:25:51)
How’s that for a big loss? That’s up there.
Lex Fridman
(01:25:55)
I’m sweating this whole conversation, both the wins and the losses and the stakes involved.
Bill Ackman
(01:25:59)
And by the way, that loss catalyzed other, what I call mark to market losses. Very high profile, huge number, disastrous press. Then people said, “Okay, Bill’s going to go out of business, so we’re going to bet against everything he’s doing. And we know his entire portfolio because we only own 10 things.” And we were short a company called Herbalife. Very famously, we’ve only really shorted two companies. The first one, there’s a book, the second one, there’s a movie. We no longer short companies. People pushed up the price of Herbalife, which when you’re a short seller, that’s catastrophic. I can explain that.

(01:26:39)
And then they also shorted the other stocks that we owned. And so that Valiant loss led to an overall more than 30% loss in the value of our portfolio. The Valiant loss was real and was crystallized. We ended up selling the position taking that loss. Most of the other losses were what I would call mark to market losses that were temporary. But many people go out of business because as I mentioned before, large move in a price, if investors are redeeming or you have leverage can put you out of business. And if people assumed if we got put out of business, we’d have to sell everything or cover our short position, and that would make the losses even worse. Wall Street is kind of ruthless.
Lex Fridman
(01:27:17)
They can make money off of that whole thing?
Bill Ackman
(01:27:19)
Absolutely.
Lex Fridman
(01:27:20)
They used the opportunity of Valiant to try to destroy you reputation, financially, and then capitalize and make money off of that?
Bill Ackman
(01:27:29)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(01:27:29)
Wow, that’s a terrifying spot to be in. What was it like going through that?
Bill Ackman
(01:27:34)
I was pretty grim. It’s actually much worse than that because I had a lot of stuff going on personally as well, and these things tend to be correlated. The Valiant mistake came at a time where I was contemplating my marriage. The problem with the hedge fund business is when you get to a certain scale, the CEO becomes like the chief marketing officer of the business, and I’m really an investor as opposed to a marketing guy. But when you have investors who give you a few hundred million dollars, they want to see you once a year, “Bill, I’d love to see you for an hour.” But if you’ve got a couple hundred of those, you find yourself on a plane to the Middle East, to Asia, flying around the country. This is pre Zoom, and that takes you away from the investment process.

(01:28:20)
You have to delegate more. That was a contributor to the Valiant mistake. Now we lose a ton of money on Valiant. My ex-wife and I were talking about separating, getting divorced. I put that on hold because I didn’t want to make a decision in the middle of this crisis, and things just kept getting worse. We were also sued. When you lose a lot of money … we didn’t get sued by our investors, but we got sued by a shareholder because when the stock price goes down, shareholders sue. We’d done nothing wrong other than make a big mistake. So you have litigation, your investors are taking their money out. I’m in the middle of a divorce. The divorce starts to proceed. My ex-wife’s lawyer’s expectations of what my net worth was was about three times what it actually was, and it was going lower right in the middle of this. And I remember the lawyer saying, “Look, Bill, we’ve estimate your net worth at X, but don’t worry, we only want a third.” But X was 3X, so a third was 100%.

(01:29:25)
And then I had litigation. And actually never before publicly disclosed, and I’ll share it with you now. We had a public company that owned about a third of our portfolio that was call it, our version of Berkshire Hathaway. I tried to learn from Mr. Buffet over time, and it was so to speak, permanent capital. The problem with hedge funds is people can take their money out every quarter. What Buffet has is a company where if people want to take their money out, they sell the stock, but the money stays. We set up a similar structure in October of 2014, and then a year later, Valiant happens, and then a year later we’re in the middle of the mess and we’re still in the mess. By mid 2017, we’ve got litigation underway, and another activist investor, a firm called Elliot Associates, which is run by a guy named Paul Singer, took a big position in our public company that was the bulk of our capital, and they shorted all the stocks that we owned.

(01:30:27)
And they probably went long the short that we were short, and they were making a bet that we’d be forced to liquidate and then they would make money on … Our public company was trading at a discount to what all the securities were worth. They bought the public company, they shorted the securities, and then they came to see us to try to be activists and force us to liquidate and that sort of-
Lex Fridman
(01:30:53)
Wow.
Bill Ackman
(01:30:56)
I envisioned an end where the divorce takes all of my resources, the permanent capital vehicle ends up getting liquidated, and another activist in my industry puts me out of business. And I had met Neri Oxman right around this time, and I’d fallen completely in love with her. And I was envisioning a world where I was bankrupt, a judge found me guilty of whatever, he sends me off to jail … of course not that judge because he was a civil judge, but another judge sues the SEC, Department of Justice, and I find myself in this incredible mess. And I decided I didn’t want things to end that way.

(01:31:34)
I did something I’d never done before. I talked about it before about that you don’t borrow money, but I borrowed money and I borrowed $300 million from JP Morgan in the middle of this mess. And I give JP Morgan enormous credit in seeing through it. And also I had been a good client over a long period of time, and it’s like it’s a handshake bank and they bet that I would succeed. And I took that money to buy enough stock in my public company that I could prevent an activist from taking over and I could effectively buy control of our little public company.

(01:32:09)
And I got that done, and that I knew was the moment, the turning point. And I resolved my divorce, and divorces get easier to resolve when things are going badly. I was able to resolve that. We settled the litigation. I was buying blocks of our stock in the market. I remember a day I bought a big block of stock in the market, and I get a call from Gordon Singer, who is Paul Singer’s son, who runs their London part of their business. And he’s like, “Bill, was that you buying that block?” I said, “Yes.” And he’s like, “Fuck.”
Lex Fridman
(01:32:39)
So he knew-
Bill Ackman
(01:32:40)
He knew that once I got that they were not going to be able to succeed, and they went away. And that was the bottom. And that we’ve had an incredible run since then.
Lex Fridman
(01:32:51)
And then you were able to protect your reputation from the Valiant failure still?
Bill Ackman
(01:32:57)
This is a business where you’re going to make some mistakes. It was a big one. It was very reputationally damaging. The press-
Bill Ackman
(01:33:00)
… was a big one. It was very reputationally damaging. The press was a total disaster, but I’m not a quitter. And actually the key moments for us, we’d never taken our core investment principles and actually really written them down, something we talked about at meetings, kind of our investment team meetings. I had a member of the team, I said, “Look, go find a big piece of granite and a chisel and let’s take those core principles. I want them Moses’ 10 Commandments. Okay, we’re going to chisel them and then we’re going to put it up on the wall.” And once we produce those, we put one on everyone’s desk. I said, “Look, if we ever again veer from the core principles, hit me with a baseball bat.” And that was the bottom. And ever since then, we’ve had the best six years in the history of the firm.
Lex Fridman
(01:33:45)
So refocus on the fundamentals. That’s a hell of a story.
Bill Ackman
(01:33:49)
And love helps. Love helps. I literally met Neri at the absolute bottom. Our first date was September 7th of 2017. That was very close to the bottom. Actually, there’s one other element to the story. So this went on for a few months after I met her. The other element is that one day I got a call from Neri. She’s like, “Bill, guess what?” I’m like, “What?” “Brad Pitt is coming to the Media Lab. He wants to see my work.” I’m like, “That’s beautiful, sweetheart. I didn’t know Brad Pitt was interested in your work.”
Lex Fridman
(01:34:17)
As a man, that’s a difficult phone call to take.
Bill Ackman
(01:34:19)
And apparently he’s really interested in architecture. I’m like, “Okay.” Now, Neri and I were like, we would WhatsApp all day every day, we talk throughout the day. Brad Pitt shows up at the Media Lab at 10 o’clock. I talk to her in the morning. I kind of text her to see how things are going, don’t hear back. And on WhatsApp, you can see whether the other person’s read it or not.
Lex Fridman
(01:34:41)
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Bill Ackman
(01:34:42)
Okay, no response. A couple of hours later, send her another text, no response. Six o’clock, no response. Eight o’clock, no response, 10 o’clock, no response. And she finally calls me at 10:30 and tells me how great Brad Pitt is. So I had this scenario, okay, a judge is going to find me. We’re going to lose to the judge. All my assets will disappear. And then Brad Pitt’s going to take my girlfriend. [inaudible 01:35:09].
Lex Fridman
(01:35:08)
Yeah, Brad Pitt’s your competition. This is great.
Bill Ackman
(01:35:11)
So it was like a moment. That was sort of the bottom. And then sort of the motivational thing. I didn’t want to lose to an activist, didn’t want to lose my girl to some other guy.
Lex Fridman
(01:35:22)
Brad Pitt, and you emerged from all of that, the winner on all fronts.
Bill Ackman
(01:35:27)
I’m a very fortunate guy, very fortunate and lucky.
Lex Fridman
(01:35:31)
You talked about some of the technical aspects of that, but psychologically, what are you doing at night by yourself?
Bill Ackman
(01:35:39)
That was a hard time, hard time because I was separated from my wife and my kids. I was living in not the greatest apartment. I had a beautiful home. And so I had to go find a bachelor place and I didn’t want to be away from my kids. I moved 10 blocks away and I wasn’t seeing them and they didn’t like it. So I ended up buying an apartment I didn’t like in the same building as my kids with a different entrance so I could be near them. But I was home alone. I got a dog that was Babar. We call him Babar, not the elephant. He’s a black Labradoodle.
Lex Fridman
(01:36:16)
Nice.
Bill Ackman
(01:36:17)
He was supposed to be a mini, but he’s not so as mini. But I got him at six weeks old and he would keep me company. And I started meditating actually. And a friend recommended TM. And I would meditate 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes in the evening. And I also a big believer in exercise and weightlifting and I play tennis. And I had been… This is not my first proximity to disaster. I had another moment in my career, like 2002, and I learned this method for dealing with these kind of moments, which is you just make a little progress every day. So today, I’m going to wake up, I’m going to make progress. I’ll make progress in the litigation, I’ll make progress in the portfolio. I’ll make progress with my life. And progress compounds a bit like money compounds. You don’t see a lot of progress in the first few weeks, but 30 days in like, oh, okay. You can’t look up at the mountaintop where you used to be because then you’ll give up.

(01:37:21)
But you just, okay, just make step by step by step. And then 90 days in you’re like, okay, I was way down there. Okay, the mountain. Okay, I don’t look up. Just keep making progress, progress, progress and progress really does compound. And one day you wake up and like, wow, it’s amazing how far I’ve come.

(01:37:39)
And if you look at a chart of Pershing Square, our company, you can see the absolute bottom. You can see where we were, you can see the drop and you can see where we are now. And that huge drop that felt like a complete unbelievable disaster looks like a little bump on the curve. And it really gives you perspective on these things. You just have to power through. And I think the key is, I’ve always been fortunate from a mental health point of view and nutrition, sleep, exercise, and a little progress every day. That’s it. And good friends and family. I had go take a walk with a friend every night and a sister who loves me and parents who were supportive, but they were all worried about their son, their brother. It was a moment.

(01:38:34)
And also, by the way, the other thing to think about is when you recover from something like this, you really appreciate it. And also as much of the media loves when some successful person falls, they love writing the story of success, they love even more the story of failure. But when you recover from that, it’s kind of like the American story. America, you think of the great entrepreneurs and how many failures they had before they succeeded. How many rocket launches did SpaceX have explode on the pad? And then you look at success. I mean, that’s why Musk is so admired.

Herbalife and Carl Icahn

Lex Fridman
(01:39:14)
You mentioned Herbalife. Can you take me through the saga of that? It’s historic.
Bill Ackman
(01:39:22)
So we at Pershing Square short a very few stocks. And the reason for that is short selling is just inherently treacherous. So if you buy a stock, it’s called going long. You’re buying something, your worst case scenario is you lose your whole investment. You buy a stock for 100, it goes to zero, you lose $100 per share. You buy one share, you lose 100. You short a stock at 100. What it means is you borrow the security from someone else. The analogy I gave that made it easy for people to understand, it’s a bit like you think silver coins are going to go down in value, and you have a friend who’s got a whole pile of these 1880 silver US dollars, and you think they’re going to go down in value, and say, “Hey, can I borrow 10 of those dollars from you?”

(01:40:06)
He’s like, “Sure, but what are you going to pay me to borrow them?” I’m like, “I’ll pay you interest on the value of the dollars today.” So you borrow the dollars that are worth $100 each today, you pay them interest while you’re borrowing them, and then you go sell them in the market for $100. That’s what they’re worth. And then they go down in price to 50. You go back in, you buy the silver dollars back at $50 and you give them back to your friend. Your friend is fine. You borrowed 10, you gave him the 10 back and he got interest. In the meantime, he’s happy. He made money on his coin collection. You, however, made $50 times the 10 coins, you made 500 bucks. That’s pretty good. The problem with that is what if you sell them and they go from 100 to 1000, now you’re going to have to go buy them back and you got to pay whatever, $10,000 to buy back coins that you sold for 500.

(01:40:57)
You’re going to lose $9,500. And there’s no limit to how high a stock price can go. Companies go to $3 trillion in value. Tesla, a lot of people shorted Tesla saying, oh, it’s overvalued. He’s never going to be able to make a successful electric car. Well, I’m sure the people went bankrupt shorting Tesla. That’s why we didn’t short stocks. But I was presented with this actually a reporter that covered the other short investment we made early in the career, a company called MBIA, came to me and said, “Bill, I found this incredible company. You got to take a look at it. It’s a total fraud and they’re scamming poor people.”
Lex Fridman
(01:41:30)
And we should say that MBIA was a very successful short.
Bill Ackman
(01:41:33)
It was a big part of it was that we used a different kind of instrument to short it where we reversed that sort of… we made the investment asymmetric in our favor, meaning put up a small amount of money, if it works, we make a fortune. Whereas, short selling is you kind of sell something and you have to buy it back at a higher price. Herbalife didn’t have the, what’s called credit default swaps that you purchase. Not a big enough company. It didn’t have enough debt outstanding to be able to implement it. You had to short the stock in order to make it as successful, to bet against the company. And the more work I did in the company, the more I was like, oh, my God, this thing’s an incredible scam. They purport to sell weight loss shakes, but in reality, they’re selling kind a fake business plan.

(01:42:15)
And the people that adopt it lose money and they go after poor people. They go after, actually in many cases, undocumented immigrants who are pitched on the American Dream opportunity. And because they have few other options because they can’t get legal employment, they become Herbalife distributors. And it’s a business where you, so-called multi-level marketing. Multi-level marketing is sort of the name for a legitimate company like this. Or it’s a pyramid scheme where basically your sales are really only coming from people you convince to buy the product by getting them into the business. That’s precisely what this company is. And like, okay, shorting a pyramid scheme seems like, one, we’ll make a bunch of money, but two, the world will be behind us because they’re harming poor people. Regulators will get interested in a company like this. And we said, the FTC is going to shut this thing down.

(01:43:09)
And we did a ton of work and I gave this sort of epic presentation laying out all the facts, stock got completely crushed, and we were on our way. And the government actually got interested early on, launched an investigation pretty early, SEC and otherwise. But then a guy named Carl Icahn showed up, and we have a little bit of a backstory, but his motivations here were not really principally driven by thinking Herbalife was a good company. He thought it was a good way to hurt me. So he basically bought a bunch of stock and said it was a really great company, and Carl, at least at the time, threw his weight around a bit. He was a credible investor, had a lot of resources, and that began the saga.
Lex Fridman
(01:43:57)
So he was, we should say, a legendary investor himself.
Bill Ackman
(01:44:03)
I’d say legendary in a sense. Yes, for sure. An iconic…
Lex Fridman
(01:44:06)
Iconic.
Bill Ackman
(01:44:07)
… Carl Icahn.
Lex Fridman
(01:44:08)
Oh, that’s very well done.
Bill Ackman
(01:44:09)
Yeah, so definitely a iconic investor.
Lex Fridman
(01:44:11)
So what was the backstory between the two of you?
Bill Ackman
(01:44:15)
So I mentioned that I had another period of time where significant business challenges… This was my first fund called Gotham Partners. And we had a court stop a transaction between a private company we owned and a public company. It’s another long story if you want to go there.
Lex Fridman
(01:44:29)
I would love to hear it as well.
Bill Ackman
(01:44:32)
But it was really my deciding to wind up my former fund. And we owned a big stake in a company called Hallwood Realty Partners, which was a company that owned real estate assets and it was worth a lot more than where it was trading, but it needed an activist to really unlock the value. And we were in fact of going out of business and didn’t have the time or the resources to pursue it. So I sold it to Carl Icahn, and I sold it to him at a premium to where the stock was trading. I think the stock was like 66. I sold it to him for 80, but it was worth about 150. And I said, look… And part of the deal was Carl’s like, look, I’ll give you schmuck insurance. I’ll make you sure you don’t look bad. And I had another deal at a higher price without schmuck insurance, but a deal with Carl at a lower price with schmuck insurance.

(01:45:16)
And the way the schmuck insurance went, he said, “Look, Bill, if I sell the stock in the next three years for a higher price, I’ll give you 50% of my profit.” That’s a pretty good deal. So we made that deal, and because I was dealing with Carl Icahn who had a reputation for being difficult, I was very focused on the agreement and we didn’t want him to be able to be cute. So the agreement said, if he sells or otherwise transfers his shares. And we came up with a definition to include every version of sell, okay, because it’s Carl. Well, he then buys the stake and then makes a bid for the company and plan is for him to get the company. And he bids like 120 a share, and the company hires Morgan Stanley to sell itself, and he raises bid to 125 and then 130, and eventually gets sold, I don’t remember the exact price, let’s say $145 a share.

(01:46:16)
And Carl’s not the winning bidder, and he sells his stock or he loses or transfers his shares for $145 a share. So he owes actually our investors the difference between 145 and 80 times 50%. And I had… Lawyers never like you to put a arithmetic example. I put a formula out of a math book in the documents so there can be no confusion. It was only an eight page, really simple agreement. So the deal closes and he’s supposed to pay us in two business days or three business days. I wait a few business days, no money comes in. I call Carl. I’m like, “Carl, congratulations on the Hallwood Realty.” “Thanks Bill.” I said, “Carl, just I want to remind you, I know it’s been a few years, but we have this agreement. Remember the schmuck insurance?” He’s like, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, you owe us our schmuck insurance.”

(01:47:08)
He said, “What do you mean? I didn’t sell my shares.” And I said, “Do you still have the shares?” He says, “No.” I said, “What happened to them?” “Well, the company did a merger for cash and they took away my shares, but I didn’t sell them. Do you understand what happened?” And I said, “Carl, I’m going to have to sue you.” He said, “Sue me. I’m going to sue you,” he says.

(01:47:33)
So I sued him and the legal system in America can take some time. And what he would do is we sued and then we won in the whatever New York Supreme Court, and then he appealed, and you can appeal six months after the case. He waited till the 179th day, and then he would appeal. And then we fought at the next level, and then he would appeal. And he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. Of course, the Supreme Court wouldn’t take the case. It took years. Now, as part of our agreement, we got 9% interest on the money that he owed us. So I viewed it as my Carl Icahn money market account with a much higher interest rate. And eventually I won.
Lex Fridman
(01:48:12)
What was the amount? Just-
Bill Ackman
(01:48:13)
Tiny. Now it was material to my investors. So my first fund, I wound it down, but I wanted to maximize everything for my investors. These are the people who backed me at 26 years old. I was right out of business school and no experience, and they supported me. So I’m going to go to the end of the earth for them. And four and a half million relative to our fund at the end was maybe 400 million. So it wasn’t a huge number, but it was a big percentage of what was left after I sold our liquid securities. So I was fighting for it. So we got four and a half million plus interest for eight years or something. That’s how long the litigation took. So we got about double. So he owed me $9 million, which to Carl Icahn, who had probably a $20 billion net worth. At the time, this was nothing. But to me, it was like, okay, this is my investor’s money. I’m going to get it back. And so eventually we won. Eventually he paid, and then he called me and he said, “Bill, congratulations. Now we can be friends and we can do some investing together.” I’m like, “Carl, fuck you.”
Lex Fridman
(01:49:18)
You actually said fuck you?
Bill Ackman
(01:49:19)
Yes. And I’m not that kind of person generally, but he made eight years to pay me, not me, even me, my investors money they owed. So yeah. So he probably didn’t like that. So he kind of hung around in the weeds waiting for an opportunity. And then from there I started purging. We had a kind straight line up. We were up. The first 12 years, we could do nothing wrong. Then Valeant, Herbalife, he sees an opportunity and he buys the stock. He figures he’s going to run me off the road. And so that was the beginning of that. And the moment, and I think it’s, I’m told by CNBC, it’s the most watched segment in business television history. They’re interviewing me about the Herbalife investment on CNBC, and then Carl Icahn calls into the show and we have kind of a interesting conversation where he calls me all kinds of names and stuff. So it was a moment. It was a moment in my life.
Lex Fridman
(01:50:20)
It wasn’t public information that he was long on Herbalife?
Bill Ackman
(01:50:24)
He didn’t yet disclose he had a stake. But he was just telling me how stupid I was to be short at this company.
Lex Fridman
(01:50:30)
So for him, it wasn’t about the fundamentals of the company, it was just personal?
Bill Ackman
(01:50:36)
100%.
Lex Fridman
(01:50:37)
Is there part of you that regrets saying fuck you on that phone call to Carl Icahn?
Bill Ackman
(01:50:44)
No. I generally have no regrets because I’m very happy with where I am now. And I feel like it’s a bit like you step on the butterfly in the forest and the world changes because every action has a reaction. If you’re happy with who you are, where you are in life, every decision you’ve made, good or bad over the course of your life, got you to precisely where you are. I wouldn’t change anything.
Lex Fridman
(01:51:10)
He said, you lost money on Herbalife. So he did the long-term battle.
Bill Ackman
(01:51:16)
What he did is he got on the board of the company and used the company’s financial resources plus his stake in the business to squeeze us. And a squeeze in short selling is where you restrict the supply of the securities so that there’s a scarcity, and then you encourage people to buy the stock and you drive the stock up. And as I explained before, you short those coins at 10, they go to 100, you can lose, theoretically, an unlimited amount of money. And that’s scary. That’s why we don’t short stocks. That’s why I didn’t short stocks before this, but this was… Unfortunately, I had to have the personal lesson.
Lex Fridman
(01:51:53)
So how much was for him personal versus part of the game of investing?
Bill Ackman
(01:51:59)
Well, he thought he could make money doing this. He wouldn’t have done it if he did otherwise. He thought his bully pulpit, his ability to create a short squeeze, his control over the company would enable him to achieve this. And he made a billion, we lost a billion.
Lex Fridman
(01:52:14)
So you think it was a financial decision not a personal?
Bill Ackman
(01:52:16)
It was a personal decision to pursue it, but he was waiting for an opportunity where he could make money at our expense, and it was kind of a brilliant opportunity for him. Now, the irony is… Well, first of all, the FTC found a few interesting facts. So one, the government launched an investigation. They ended up settling with the company, and the company paid $220 million in fines.

(01:52:36)
I met a professor from Berkeley a couple of years ago who told me that he had been hired by the government as their expert on Herbalife, and he got access to all their data, was able to prove that they’re a pyramid scheme. But the government ultimately settled with Carl because they were afraid they could possibly lose in court. So they settled with him. But if you look at the stock, if we’d been able to stay short the entire time, we would’ve made a bunch of money because the stock had a $6 billion market cap, and we shorted it. Today as probably a billion, a billion and a half.
Lex Fridman
(01:53:08)
So you left the short or whatever that’s called…?
Bill Ackman
(01:53:11)
We covered, we closed it out. When we sold Valeant, we covered Herbalife. That was the resetting moment for the firm because it would just, psychologically… And the beauty of investing is you don’t need to make it back the way you lost it. You can just take your loss. By the way, losses are valuable and that the government allows you to take a tax loss and that can shelter other gains. And we just refocused.
Lex Fridman
(01:53:35)
Can you say one thing you really like about Carl Icahn and one thing you really don’t like about him?
Bill Ackman
(01:53:40)
Sure. So he’s a very charming guy. So in the midst of all this, at the Hallwood one, he took me out for dinner to his favorite Italian restaurant.
Lex Fridman
(01:53:51)
Really?
Bill Ackman
(01:53:52)
Yeah. We’re in the middle of the litigation to see if he could resolve it, and he offered 10 million to my favorite charity. The problem was that it wasn’t my money, it was my investor’s money. So I couldn’t settle with him on that basis, but I had the chance to spend real time with him at dinner. He’s funny, he’s charismatic, he’s got incredible stories. And actually I made peace with him over time. We had a little hug out on CNBC, even had him to my house, believe it or not. I hosted something called the Finance Cup, which is a tennis tournament between people in finance in Europe and the US. And we had the event at my house and one guy thought to invite Carl Icahn. And so we had Carl Icahn there to present awards. And again, I have to say, I kind of like the guy, but I didn’t like him much during this.
Lex Fridman
(01:54:47)
Because at least from the outsider perspective, there’s a bit of a personal vengeance here or anger can build up. Do you ever worry the personal attacks between powerful investors can cloud your judgment of what is the right financial decision?
Bill Ackman
(01:55:04)
I think it’s possible, but again, I try to be extremely economically rational. And actually the last seven years have been quite peaceful. I really have not been an activist in the old form for many years. And the vast majority of even our activist investments historically were very polite, respectful cases. The press, of course, focuses on the more interesting ones. Like Chipotle was one of the best investments we ever made. We got four of eight board seats and we worked with management and it was a great outcome. I don’t think there’s ever been a story about it. And the stock’s up almost 10 times from the time we hired Brian Nichols as CEO. But it’s not interesting because there was no battle. Whereas, Herbalife, of course, was like an epic battle, even Canadian Pacific. So for a period there, most people when they meet me in person, they’re like, “Wow, bill, you seem like a really nice guy. But I thought…” But things have been pretty calm for the last seven years.

Oct 7

Lex Fridman
(01:56:03)
Of course, there’s more than just the investing that your life is about, especially recently. Let me just ask you about what’s going on in the world. First, what was your reaction and what is your reaction and thoughts with respect to the October 7th attacks by Hamas on Israel?
Bill Ackman
(01:56:27)
It’s a sad world that we live in. That, one, we have terrorists, and two, that we could have such barbaric terrorism. And just a reminder of that.
Lex Fridman
(01:56:38)
So there’s several things I can ask here. First, on your views on the prospects of the Middle East, but also on the reaction to this war in the United States, especially on university campuses. So first, let me just ask, you’ve said that you’re pro-Palestinian. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Bill Ackman
(01:57:00)
With all of my posts about Israel, I’m obviously very supportive of the country of Israel, Israel’s right to exist, Israel’s right to defend itself. My Arab friends, my Palestinian friends were kind of saying, “Hey Bill, where are you? What about Palestinian lives?” And I was pretty early in my life, a guy named Marty Peretz, who’s been important to me over the course of my life, a professor or first investor in my fund, introduced me to Neri, asked me when I was right out of school to join this nonprofit called the Jerusalem Foundation, which was a charitable foundation that supported Teddy Kollek when he was mayor of Jerusalem. I ended up becoming the youngest chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation in my 30s. And I spent some time in Israel, and the early philanthropic stuff I did with the Jerusalem Foundation, the thing I was most interested in was kind of the plight to the Palestinians and kind of peaceful coexistence.

(01:57:58)
And so I had kind of an early kind of perspective, and as chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation, I would go into Arab communities and I would meet with families in their homes. You get a sense of the humanity of a people. And I care about humanity. I generally take the side of people who’ve been disadvantaged. Almost all of our philanthropic work has been in that capacity. So it’s sort of my natural perspective, but I don’t take the side of terrorists ever, obviously. And the whole thing is just a tragedy.
Lex Fridman
(01:58:34)
So to you, this is about Hamas, not about Palestine?
Bill Ackman
(01:58:38)
Yes. I mean, the problem of course is when Hamas controls… for the last almost 20 years, has controlled Gaza, including the education system. They’re educating. You see these training videos of kindergartners, indoctrinating them into hating Jews and Israel. And of course, you don’t like to see Palestinians celebrating some of those early videos of October 7th with dead bodies in the back of trucks and people cheering. So it’s a really unfortunate situation, but I think about a Palestinian life as important, as valuable as a Jewish life, as a American life. And what do people really want? They want a place. They want a home. They want to be able to feed their family. They want a job that generates the resources to feed their family. They want their kids to have a better life than they’ve had. They want peace. I think these are basic human things. I’m sure the vast majority of Palestinians share these views, but it’s such an embedded situation with hatred and, as I say, indoctrination.

(01:59:53)
And then going back to incentives, terrorists generate their resources by committing terrorism, and that’s how they get funding. And there’s a lot of graft. It’s a plutocracy. The top of the terrorist pyramid, if you accept the numbers that are in the press, the top leaders have billions of dollars. 40 billion or so has gone into Gaza over the last… and the West Bank over the last 30 years, a number like that. And a lot of it’s disappeared into some combination of corruption or tunnels or weapons. And the tragedy is you look at what Singapore has achieved in the last 30 years, right?
Lex Fridman
(02:00:37)
Do you think that’s still possible if we look into the future of 10, 20, 50 years from now?
Bill Ackman
(02:00:42)
Absolutely.
Lex Fridman
(02:00:43)
So not just peace, but-
Bill Ackman
(02:00:46)
Peace comes with prosperity. People are under the leadership of terrorists, you’re not going to have prosperity and you’re not going to have peace. And I think the Israelis withdrew in 2005 and fairly quickly, Hamas took control of the situation. That should never have been allowed to happen. And I think if you think about… I had the opportunity to spend, call it, an hour with Henry Kissinger a few months before we passed away, and we were talking about Gaza, or in the early stage of the war. He said, “Look, you can think about Gaza as a test of a two-state solution. It’s not looking good.” These were his words. So the next time round, the Palestinian people should have their own state, but it can’t be a state where 40 billion resources goes in and is spent on weaponry and missiles and rockets going into Israel. And I do think a consortium of the Gulf states, the Saudis and others have to ultimately oversee the governance of this region. I think if that can happen, I think you can have peace, you can have prosperity. And I’m fundamentally an optimist.
Lex Fridman
(02:02:06)
So a coalition of governance.
Bill Ackman
(02:02:09)
Governance matters, going back to what we talked about before.
Lex Fridman
(02:02:13)
And that kind of approach can give the people a chance to flourish.
Bill Ackman
(02:02:20)
100%. 100%. I mean, look at what Dubai has accomplished with nomads in the desert. It’s a tourist destination. Gaza could have been a tourist destination.

College campus protests

Lex Fridman
(02:02:34)
Take me through the saga of university presidents testifying on this topic, on the topic of protests on college campuses, protests that call for the genocide of Jewish people and the university presidents… Maybe you could describe it more precisely, but they fail to denounce the calls for genocide.
Bill Ackman
(02:03:01)
So it begins on October 8th probably. And you can do a compare and contrast with how Dartmouth managed the events of October 7th and the aftermath, and how Harvard did. And on October 8th or shortly thereafter, the Dartmouth president, who had been in her job for precisely the same number of months that the Harvard president had been in her job. The first thing she did is she got the most important professors of Middle East studies who were Arab and who were Jews and convened them and held an open session Q&A for students to talk about what’s going on in the Middle East, and began an opportunity for common understanding among the student body. And Dartmouth has been a relatively benign environment on this issue, and students are able to do work and there aren’t disruptive protests with people with bullhorn…
Bill Ackman
(02:04:00)
Work and there aren’t disruptive protests with people with bullhorns walking into classrooms interfering with … People pay, today, $82,000 a year, which itself is crazy, to go to Harvard. But imagine your family borrows the money or you borrow the money as a student and you’re learning is disrupted by constant protests and the university does nothing. When George Floyd died, the Harvard president wrote a very strong letter denouncing what had taken place and calling this an important moment in American history and took it incredibly seriously. Her first letter about October 7th was not that, let’s put it that way. Then her second letter was not that. Then, ultimately, she was sort of forced by the board or pressured to make a more public statement, but it was clear that it was hard for her to come to an understanding of this terrorist act.

(02:04:58)
Then the protests erupted on campus and they started out reasonably benign. Then the protesters got more and more aggressive in terms of violating university rules on things like bullying, and the university did nothing. That obviously for the Jewish students, the Israeli students, the Israeli faculty, Jewish faculty, created an incredibly uncomfortable environment. The president seemed indifferent. I went up to campus and I met with hundreds of students in small groups, in larger groups and they’re like, “Bill, why is the president doing nothing? Why is the administration doing nothing?” That was really the beginning.

(02:05:36)
I reached out to the president, reached out to the board of Harvard, I said, “Look, this thing is headed in the wrong direction and you need to fix it. I have some ideas, love to share.” I got the Heisman, as they say. They just kept pushing off the opportunity for me to meet with the president and meet with the board. At a certain point in time I pushed, I’m kind of a activist when he pushed me, it reminded me of early days of activism where I couldn’t get the CEO of Wendy’s to return my call. I couldn’t get the CEO of Harvard to take a meeting.

(02:06:19)
Then finally I spoke to the chairman of the board, a woman by the name of Penny Pritzker, who I’m on a business school board with her. It was, as I described, one of the more disappointing conversations in my life. She seemed a bit like, if you will, deer in the headlights. They couldn’t do this, they couldn’t do that. The law was preventing them from doing various things. That led to my first letter to the university. I sort of ended the letter of giving this president of Harvard a dare to be great speech. This is your opportunity. You can fix this. This could be your legacy. I emailed it to the president and the board members whose email addresses I had, I posted it on Twitter and I got no response, no acknowledgement, nothing. In fact, the open dialogue I had with a couple of people on the board basically got shut down after that.

(02:07:16)
That led to letter number two. Then when the Congress, led by Elise Stefanik, announced an investigation of antisemitism on campus and concern about violations of law, the president was called to testify along with two other … The president of MIT, the president of University of Pennsylvania were having similar issues on campus. I reached out to the president of Harvard and said, well, one, the Israeli government had gotten in touch and offered the opportunity for me to see the Hamas, if you will, GoPro film. I said, “You know, I’d love to show it at Harvard,” and they thought that would be a great idea. I partnered with the head of Harvard Chabad, a guy named Rabbi Hirschy, and we were putting the film up on campus.

(02:08:06)
I thought if the president were to see this, it would give her a lot of perspective on what happened and she should see it before her testimony. I reached out to her, or actually Rabbi Hirschy did. He was told she would be out of town and couldn’t see it. Then I reached out to her again and said, “Look, I’ll facilitate your attendance in the Congress. Come see the film, I’ll fly you down.” That was rejected, and then she testified.

(02:08:36)
I watched a good percentage, 80% of the testimony, of all three presidents, and it was an embarrassment to the country, embarrassment to the universities. They were evasive. They didn’t answer questions. They were rude. They smirked. They looked very disrespectful to our Congress. Then, of course, there was that several minutes where finally Elise Stefanik was not getting answers to her questions, and she said, “Let me be kind of clear. What if protestors were calling for genocide for the Jews? Does that violate your rules on bullying and harassment?” The three of them basically gave the same answer; “It depends on the context.” Not until they actually executed on the genocide that the university had the right to intervene.

(02:09:26)
The thing that perhaps bothered me the most was the incredible hypocrisy. Each of these universities are ranked by this entity called FIRE, which is a nonprofit that focuses on free speech on campus. Harvard, it’s been in the bottom quartile for the last five years and dropped to last before October 7th, out of 250.
Lex Fridman
(02:09:47)
I should mention briefly that I’ve interviewed on this podcast, the founder of FIRE and the current head of FIRE, where we discussed this at length, including running for the board of Harvard and the whole procedure of all that. It’s quite a fascinating investigation of free speech. For people who care about free speech absolutism that’s a good episode to listen to because those folks kind of fight for this idea. It’s a difficult idea actually to internalize; what does free speech on college campuses look like?
Bill Ackman
(02:10:17)
Harvard has become a place where free speech is not tolerated on campus, or at least free speech that’s not part of the accepted dialogue. This whole notion of speech codes and microaggressions really emerged on the Harvard, Yale campuses of the world. The then president of Harvard’s explanation for why you could call for the genocide of the Jewish people on campus was Harvard’s commitment to free expression. One of the more hypocritical statements of all time. You really can’t have it both ways. Either Harvard has to be a place where it’s a free speech … She basically said, “We’re a free speech absolutist place, which is why we have to allow this.” Harvard could not be further from that. That was a big part of it.

(02:11:07)
I was in the barber chair, if you will, getting a haircut. I had a guy on my team send me the three-minute section. I said, “Cut that line of questioning.” I put out a little tweet on that. I call it my greatest hits of posts, it’s got something like 110 million views. Everyone looked at this and said, “What is wrong with university campuses and their leadership,” and their governance, by the way. In a way, this whole conversation has been about governance. Harvard has a disastrous governance structure, which is why we have the problem we have.
Lex Fridman
(02:11:46)
Just to linger on the testimony, you mentioned smirks and this kind of stuff, and you mentioned dare to be great, I myself am kind of a sucker for great leadership. You mentioned Churchill or so on, even great speeches … People talk down on speeches like it’s maybe just words, but I think speeches can define a culture and define a place, define a people that can inspire. I think, actually, the testimony before Congress could have been an opportunity to redefine what Harvard is. Dare to be a great leader.
Bill Ackman
(02:12:30)
The president of Harvard had a huge opportunity, because she went third. The first two gave the world’s most disastrous answers to the question, and she literally just copied their answer, which is, itself, kind of ironic in light of ultimately what happened.
Lex Fridman
(02:12:45)
It’s tough because you can get busy as a president, as a leader and so on. There’s these meetings, and so you think Congress, maybe you’re smirking at the ridiculousness of the meeting. You need to remember that many of these are opportunities to give a speech of a lifetime. If there is principles which you want to see an institution become and embody in the next several decades, there’s opportunities to do that. You, as a great leader, also need to have a sense of when is the opportunity to do that. October 7th really woke up the world on all sides, honestly. There is a serious issue going on here. Then the protests woke up the university to there’s a serious issue going on here. It’s an opportunity to speak on free speech and on genocide, both.
Bill Ackman
(02:13:44)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(02:13:45)
Do you see the criticism that you are a billionaire donor and you sort of used your power and financial influence unfairly to affect the governing structure of Harvard, in this case?
Bill Ackman
(02:13:59)
First of all, I never threatened to use financial or other resources. The only thing I did here was wrote. I wrote public letters, I spoke privately to a couple members of the board. I spoke for 45 minutes to the chairman. None of those conversations were effective or went anywhere, as far as I could tell. I think my public letters and then some of the posts, I did and that little three minute video excerpt had an impact, but it wasn’t about … I mean you can criticize me for being a billionaire, but it was really the words. It’s a bit like, again, going back to the corporate analogy, it’s not the fact that you own 5% of the company that causes people to vote in your favor, it’s the fact that your ideas are right.

(02:14:47)
After the congressional testimony, the board of Harvard said that they were unanimously, a hundred percent behind President Gay. Clearly, I was ineffective. Ultimately what took her down was other, I would say, activists who identified issues with academic integrity and then she lost the confidence of the faculty. Once that happens, it’s hard to stay. I wanted her to be fired, basically, or be forced to resign because of failures of leadership, because that would’ve sent a message about the importance of leadership. Failure to stop a emergence of antisemitism on campus. There’s some news today; the protests are getting worse.
Lex Fridman
(02:15:28)
Is there some tension between free speech on college campuses and disciplining students for calls of genocide?
Bill Ackman
(02:15:34)
Yes, there’s certainly a tension. First of all, I think free speech is incredibly important. I’m a lot closer to absolutism on free speech than otherwise. The issue I had was the hypocrisy. They were restricting other kinds of speech on campus, principally conservative speech, conservative views. So it wasn’t a free speech, absolutist campus. The protests were actually quite threatening to students. There are limits to even absolutist free speech and they begin where people feel intimidation, harassment and threat to bodily harm, et cetera, that kind of speech is generally … Again, it’s pretty technical, but as people feel like they’re in imminent harm, by virtue of the protest, that speech is at risk of not meeting the standards for free speech.

(02:16:26)
Harvard is a private corporation and as a private corporation, they can put on what restrictions they want. Harvard had introduced only a few months before bullying and harassment policies, and that’s why Representative Stefanik focused on … It’s not like she said, “Does calling for genocide against the Jews violate your free speech policies?” She said, “Does calling for genocide against the Jews violate your policies on bullying and harassment?”

(02:16:49)
I think everyone looked at this when they said, it depends on the context. They said, look, if you replaced Jews with some other ethnic group, students who’ve used the N word for example, have been thrown off campus or suspended. Students who’ve hate speeched directed at LGBTQ people has led to disciplinary action, but attacking, spitting on Jewish students or roughing them up a bit, seemed like we’re calling for their elimination, didn’t seem to violate the policies. Look, I think a university should be a place where you have broad views and open viewpoints and broad discussion, but it should also be a place where students don’t feel threatened going to class, where their learning is not interrupted, when final exams are not interrupted by people coming in with loud protests.

(02:17:43)
Students asked me when I went up there, “What would you do if you were Harvard president?” This was before I knew what was happening on the Dartmouth campus, I said, “I’d convene everyone together. This is Harvard. We have access to the best minds in the world. Let’s have a better understanding of the history. Let’s understand the backdrop. Let’s focus on solutions. Let’s bring Arab and Jewish and Israeli students together. Let’s form let groups to create communication.” That’s how you solve this kind of problem. None of that stuff has been done. It’s not that hard.
Lex Fridman
(02:18:09)
Do you think this reveals a deeper problem in terms of ideology and the governance of Harvard in maybe the culture of Harvard?
Bill Ackman
(02:18:22)
Yes. On governance, the governance structure is a disaster. The way it works today is Harvard has two principal boards. There’s the board of the corporation, the so-called fellows of Harvard. It’s a board of, I think, 12 independent directors and the president. There’s no shareholder vote, there’s no proxy system. It’s really a self-perpetuating board that effectively elects its own members. Once the balance tips, politically, one way or another, it can be kept that way forever. There’s no kind of rebalancing system. If a US corporation goes off the rails, so to speak, the shareholders can get together and vote off the directors. There’s no ability to vote off the directors.

(02:19:04)
Then there’s the board of overseers, which is I think 32 directors. A few years ago, if you could put together 600 signatures, you could run for that board and put up a bunch of candidates and about five or six get elected each year. A group did exactly that, and it was an oil and gas kind of disinvestment group. They got the signatures, a couple of them got elected, and Harvard then changed the rules and they said, ” Now we need 3,200 signatures. By the way, if there are these dissident directors on the board, we’re going to cap them at five.” So if three were elected in the oil and gas thing, now they’re only two seats available.

(02:19:46)
Then a group of former students, kind of younger alums, one of whom I knew, approached me and said, “Look, Bill, we should run for the board.” They decided this pretty late, only a few weeks before the signatures were due. We’d love your support. I took a look at their platform, I thought it looked great. I said, “Look, happy to support.” I posted about them, did a Zoom with them, and they got thousands of signatures. Collectively the four got, whatever, 12,000 signatures or something like this. They missed by about 10% of the threshold.

(02:20:16)
What did Harvard do in the middle of the election? They made it very, very difficult to sign up for a vote and it just makes them look terrible. They’ve got now thousands of alums upset that … Again, this wasn’t an election. This was just to put the names on the slate. The only candidates on the slate are the ones selected by the existing members. Businesses fail because of governance failures. Universities fail because of governance failures. It’s not really the president’s fault, because the job of the board is to hire and fire the president and help guide the institution academically and otherwise. That’s governance.

DEI in universities


(02:20:59)
I was like, “How can this be?” October 7th, the event that woke me up was 30 student organizations came out with a public letter on October 8th, literally the morning after this letter was created and said, “Israel is solely responsible for Hamas’ violent acts.” Again, Israel had not even mounted a defense at this point, and there were still terrorists running around in the southern part of Israel. I’m like, “34 Harvard student organizations signed this letter?” I’m like, “What is going on? WTF?” That’s when I went up on campus and I started talking to the faculty.

(02:21:43)
That’s when I started hearing about, actually, Bill, it’s this DEI ideology. I’m like, “What?” Diversity, equity, inclusion. Obviously I’m familiar with these words and I see this in the corporate context. They say, “Yeah.” They started talking to me about this oppressor-oppressed framework, which is effectively taught on campus and represents the backdrop for many of the courses that are offered and some of the studies and other degree offerings. I had not even heard of this and I’m a pretty aware person, but I was completely unaware. Basically they’re like, “Look, Israel is deemed an oppressor and the Palestinians are deemed the oppressed, and you take the side of the oppressed. Any acts of the oppressed to dislodge the oppressor, regardless of how vile or barbaric, are okay.” I’m like, “Okay. This is a super dangerous ideology.”

(02:22:45)
I wrote a questioning post about this, like, “Here’s what I’m hearing, is this right?” A friend of mine sent me Christopher Rufo’s book, America’s Cultural Revolution, which is sort of a sociological study of the origins of the DEI movement and critical race theory. I found it actually one of the more important books I’ve read and also I found it quite concerning. Ultimately, DEI comes out of a kind of Marxist socialist way to look at the world. I think there are a lot of issues with it, but unfortunately it’s advancing. I, ultimately, concluded racism, as opposed to fighting it, which is what I thought it was ultimately about.
Lex Fridman
(02:23:37)
Maybe you can speak to that book a little bit. So there’s a history that traces back across decades and then that infiltrated college campuses.
Bill Ackman
(02:23:47)
So basically what Rufo argues is that the black power movement of the sixties really failed. It was a very violent movement and many of the protagonists ended up in jail. Out of that movement, a number of thought leaders, this guy named [inaudible 02:24:08] and others built this framework kind of an approach. Said, “Look, if we’re going to be successful, it can’t be a violent movement, number one. Number two, we need to infiltrate, if you will, the universities and we need to become part of the faculty and we need to teach the students. Then once we take over the universities with this ideology, then we can go into government and then we can go into corporations and we can change the world.” I thought important book, and the more I dug in, the more I felt there was credibility to this, not just the kind of sociological backdrop, but to what it meant on campus.

(02:24:49)
Harvard faculty were telling me that there really is no such thing as free speech on campus and that there was a survey done, a year or so ago, the Harvard faculty and only 2% of the faculty admitted, even in an anonymous survey, admitted to having a conservative point of view. We have a campus that’s 98% non-conservative, liberal, progressive that’s adopted this DEI construct. Then I learned from a member of the search committee for the Harvard president that they were restricted in looking at candidates only those who met the DEI office’s criteria. I shared this in one of my postings and I was accused of being a racist. That’s someone who believes in that diversity is a very good thing for organizations and that equity fairness isn’t really important, and having an inclusive culture is critical for a functioning of a organization. Here I was, someone who was like, “Okay. DEI, sounds good to me,” at least in the small D small E, I version of events, but this DEI ideology is really problematic.
Lex Fridman
(02:26:02)
What’s the way to fix this in the next few years, the infiltration of DEI with the uppercase version of universities and the things that have troubled you, the things you saw at Harvard and elsewhere.
Bill Ackman
(02:26:20)
The same way this was an eyeopening event for me it has been for a very broad range of other people. I mentioned general growth. I got a lot of nice letters from people from making money on a stock that went up a hundred times. I literally get hundreds of emails, letters, texts, handwritten letters, typed letters from people, from the ages of 25 to 85, saying, “Bill, this is so important. Thanks for speaking out on this. You are saying what so many of us believe but have been afraid to say.”

(02:26:51)
I described it as almost a McCarthy-esque kind of movement in that if you challenge the DEI construct people accuse you of being a racist. It’s happened to me already. Perhaps I’m much less vulnerable than a university professor who can get shouted off campus, canceled. I’m sort of difficult to cancel, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t going to try. I’ve been the victim of a couple of interesting articles in the last few days, or at least one in particular in The Washington Post written by what I thought was a well-meaning reporter. It’s just clear that I’ve taken on some big parts of at least the progressive establishment, DEI. I’m also a believer that Biden should have stepped aside a long time ago, and it’s only getting worse. I’m attacking the president, DEI, elite universities and you make some enemies doing that.
Lex Fridman
(02:27:51)
I should say, I’m still at MIT and I love MIT. I believe in the power of great universities to explore ideas, to inspire young people to think, to inspire young people to lead.
Bill Ackman
(02:28:08)
Let me ask, okay, how can you explore how to think when you’re only shared a certain point of view? How can you learn about leadership when the governance and leadership at the institution is broken and exposure to ideas, if you’re limited in the ideas that you’re exposed to? I think university is at risk. I mean, the concerning thing is if 34 student organizations that each have, I don’t know, 30 members or maybe more, that’s a thousand. Okay. That’s a meaningful percentage of the campus perhaps that ultimately respond. Now, 10 or so, the 30 withdrew the statement once many of the members realized what they had written. It seems like the statement was signed by their leadership and not necessarily supported by all the various students that were members. If the university teaches people these precepts, this is the next generation of …

(02:29:04)
I wrote my college thesis on university admissions. The reason why controlling the gates of the Harvard institution, the admissions office is important, is that many of these people who graduate end up with the top jobs in government and ultimately become judges, they permeate through society and so it really matters what they learn. If they’re limited to one side of the political aisle and they’re not open to a broad array of views, and this represents some of the most elite institutions in our country, I think it’s very problematic for the country, long term.
Lex Fridman
(02:29:47)
Yeah, I 100% agree. I also felt like the leadership wasn’t even part of the problem as much as they were almost out of touch, unaware that this is an important moment, it’s an important crisis, it’s an important opportunity to step up as a leader and define the future of an institution. I don’t even know where the source of the problem is. It could be, literally, governance structure as we’ve been talking about.
Bill Ackman
(02:30:18)
Well, it’s two things. I think it’s governance structure. I also think universities, they’re not selecting leaders. It’s not clear to me that universities should necessarily be run by academics. The dean of a university, the person who helps … There’s sort of the business of the university, and then there’s the academics of the university. I would argue having a business leader run these institutions and then having a board that has, itself, diverse viewpoints, and by the way, permanently structured to have diverse viewpoints is a much better way to run a university than picking an academic that the faculty supports.

(02:31:11)
One of the things I learned about how faculty get hired at universities, ultimately, it’s signed off by the board, but the new faculty are chosen by each of the various departments. There’s sort of a tipping point, politically, where once they tip in one direction, the faculty recruit more people like themselves. The departments become more and more progressive, if you will, with the passage of time. They only advance candidates that meet their political objectives. It’s not a great way to build an institution, which allows for …
Lex Fridman
(02:31:48)
Small D, diversity
Bill Ackman
(02:31:50)
Allows for diversity. Diversity by the way, is not just race and gender. That’s also something I feel very strongly about.
Lex Fridman
(02:32:00)
Well, luckily, engineering robotics is touched last by this. It is touched. When I am at the computing building [inaudible 02:32:11] and the new one, politics doesn’t infiltrate, or I haven’t seen it infiltrate quite as deeply as elsewhere.
Bill Ackman
(02:32:17)
It’s in the biology department at Harvard because biology is controversial now.
Lex Fridman
(02:32:22)
Yes. Yes, yes.
Bill Ackman
(02:32:23)
Because biology and gender, there are faculty … There’s a woman at Harvard who was literally canceled from the faculty as a member. I think she was at the med school. She made the argument that there are basically two genders determined by biology. She wasn’t allowed to stay. That’s another topic for another time.
Lex Fridman
(02:32:46)
That’s another topic.
Bill Ackman
(02:32:47)
You should do a show on that one. That’d be an interesting one.
Lex Fridman
(02:32:50)
So as you said, technically Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard resigned over plagiarism, not over the thing that you were initially troubled by.
Bill Ackman
(02:33:01)
It’s hard to really know, right? It’s not like a provable fact. I would say at a certain point in time, she lost the confidence of the faculty, and that was ultimately the catalyst. How much of that was the plagiarism issue, and how much of that was some of the things that preceded it, or was it all of these issues in their entirety? There’s no way to do a calculus.
Lex Fridman
(02:33:21)
Can you explain the nature of this plagiarism from what you remember?
Bill Ackman
(02:33:25)
Aaron Sibarium and Christopher Rufo, one from The Free Beacon, and Chris, surfaced some allegations, or identified some pleasures in the issues that I would say the initial examples were use of the same words with proper attribution, some missing footnotes. Then over time with, I guess, more digging, they released I think ultimately something like 76 examples of what they call plagiarism in I think eight of 11 of her articles. One of the other things that came forth here is, as president of the university, she had sort of the thinnest transcript academically of any previous president, relatively small body of work. Then when you couple that with the amount of plagiarism that was pervasive. Then I guess some of the other examples that surfaced were not missing quotation marks where the authors of the work felt that their ideas had been stolen.

(02:34:26)
Really, plagiarism is academic fraud. One indicia of plagiarism is a missing footnote, that could also be a clerical error. When a professor’s accused of plagiarism, the university does sort of a deep dive. They have these administrative boards. It can take six months, nine months, a year to evaluate … Intent matters. Was this intentional theft of another person’s idea? That’s academic fraud. Or was this sloppy or just humanity? You miss a footnote here or there. I think once it got …
Bill Ackman
(02:35:00)
It’s a footnote here or there. And I think once it got to a place where people felt it was theft of someone else’s intellectual property, that’s when it became intolerable for her to stay as President of Harvard.
Lex Fridman
(02:35:13)
So is there a spectrum for you between a different kinds of plagiarism, maybe be plagiarizing words, and plagiarizing ideas, and plagiarizing novel ideas?
Bill Ackman
(02:35:28)
Of course. The common understanding of plagiarism, if you look in the dictionary, it’s about the theft. Theft requires a intent. Did the person intentionally take someone else’s ideas or words?

(02:35:43)
Now if you’re writing a novel, words matter more. If you’re taking Shakespeare and presenting it as your own words. If you’re writing about ideas, ideas matter, but you’re not supposed to take someone else’s words without properly acknowledging them, whether it’s quotation marks or otherwise.

(02:36:03)
But in the context of a academic’s life’s work before AI, everyone’s going to have missing quotation marks and footnotes. I remember writing my own thesis, there were books you couldn’t take out a Widener Library, so I’d have index cards. And I’d write stuff on index cards, and I put a little citation to make sure I remember to cite it properly.

(02:36:27)
And scrambling to do your thesis, get it in on time, what’s the chances you forget at what point, what are your words versus the author’s words? And you forget to put quotation marks. Just the humanity, the human fallibility of it. So it’s not academic fraud to have human fallibility, but it’s academic fraud. If you take someone else’s ideas that are an integral part of your work.
Lex Fridman
(02:36:53)
Is there a part of you that regrets that, at least from the perception of it, the President Harvard stepped on over plagiarism versus over refusing to say that the calls for genocide are wrong?
Bill Ackman
(02:37:09)
Again, I think it would’ve sent a better message if a leader fails as a leader, and that’s the reason for their resignation or dismissal. Then she gets, if you will, caught on a technical violation that had nothing to do with failed leadership. Because I don’t know what lesson that teaches the board about selecting the next candidate.

(02:37:32)
I mean, the future of Harvard, A lot of it’s going to depend on who they pick as the next leader. Here’s an interesting anecdote that I think has not surfaced publicly. So a guy named Larry Bacow was the previous president of Harvard. Larry Bacow was on the search committee, and they were looking for a new president. And what was strange was they picked an old white guy to be president of Harvard when there was a call for a more diverse president.

(02:38:04)
And what I learned was Harvard actually ran a process, had a diverse new president of Harvard, and in the due diligence on that candidate, shortly before the announcement of the new president, they found out that that presidential candidate had a plagiarism problem. And the search had gone on long enough, they couldn’t restart a search to find another candidate.

(02:38:26)
So they picked Larry Bacow off the board, off the search committee to the next president Harvard, as kind of an interim solution. And then there was that much more pressure to have a more diverse candidate this time around, because it was a big disappointment to the DEI office, if you will, and I would say to the community at large. That Harvard of all places couldn’t have a racially-diverse present. It sent an important message.

(02:38:53)
So the strange thing is that they didn’t do due diligence on President Gay, and that it was a relatively quick process. So the whole thing I think is worthy of further exploration.
Lex Fridman
(02:39:08)
So this goes deeper than just the president?
Bill Ackman
(02:39:10)
Yes, for sure. When a company fails, most people blame the CEO. I generally blame the board. Because the board’s job is to make sure the right person’s running the company, and if they’re failing, help the person. If they can’t help the person, make a change. That’s not what’s happened here. The board’s hand was sort of forced from the outside, whereas they should have made their own decision from the inside.
Lex Fridman
(02:39:32)
Do you still love Harvard?
Bill Ackman
(02:39:34)
Sure. It’s a 400-odd year institution. Enormously helpful to me in my life, I’m sure. My sister also went to Harvard. And the experiences, learnings, friendships, relationships. Again, I’m very happy with my life. Harvard was an important part of my life, I went there for both undergrad and business school. I learned a ton, met a lot of faculty. A number of my closest friends who I still really keep in touch with, I made then. So yeah, it’s a great place, but it needs a reboot.
Lex Fridman
(02:40:15)
Yeah, I still have hope. I think universities are really important institutions.
Bill Ackman
(02:40:21)
When I went to Harvard, there were 1600 people in my class. I think today’s class about the same size, and their online education really has not taken off. So I heard Peter Thiel speak at one point in time, and he’s like, “What great institution do you know, that’s truly great, that hasn’t grown in a hundred years?”

(02:40:44)
And the incentives in some sense of the alums are for, it’s a bit like a club. If you’re proud of the elitism of the club, you don’t want that many new members. But the fact that the population has grown of the country so significantly since, certainly, I was a student in 1984, and the fact that Harvard recruits people from all over the world, it’s really serving a smaller and smaller percentage of the population today.

(02:41:11)
And some of them were most talented and successful entrepreneurs anyway. It’s a token of success that they didn’t make it through their undergraduate years. They left as a freshman, or they didn’t attend at all.
Lex Fridman
(02:41:25)
For entrepreneurs, yes. But it’s still a place…
Bill Ackman
(02:41:28)
Very important for research, very important for advancing ideas. And yes, in shaping dialogue and the next generation of Supreme Court justices, and the members of government, politicians. So yes, it’s critically important. But it’s not doing the job it should be doing.

Neri Oxman

Lex Fridman
(02:41:53)
Neri Oxman, somebody you mentioned several times throughout this podcast, somebody I had a wonderful conversation with, a friendship with. I’ve looked up to her, admired her, I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time, of her work and of her as a human being. Looks like you’re a fan of hers as well.
Bill Ackman
(02:42:12)
Yes. W.
Lex Fridman
(02:42:14)
Hat do you love about Neri? What do you admire about her as a scientist, artist, human being?
Bill Ackman
(02:42:19)
I think she’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever met, and I mean that from the center of her soul. She’s the most caring, warm, considerate, thoughtful person I’ve ever met. And she couples those remarkable qualities with brilliance, incredible creativity, beauty, elegance, grace. I’m talking about my wife, but I’m talking incredibly dispassionately.

(02:42:57)
But I mean what I say. She’s the most remarkable person I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of remarkable people, and I’m incredibly fortunate to spend a very high percentage of my lifetime with her, ever since I met her six years ago.
Lex Fridman
(02:43:14)
So she’s been a help to you through some of the rough moments you described.
Bill Ackman
(02:43:17)
For sure. I mean, I met her at the bottom. Which is not a bad place to meet someone if it works out.
Lex Fridman
(02:43:25)
Is there some degree of yin and yang with the two personalities? You have described yourself as emotional and so on, but it does seem the two of you have slightly different styles about how you approach the world.
Bill Ackman
(02:43:39)
Sure. Well, interestingly, we have a lot of, we come from very similar places in the world. There are times where you feel like we’ve known each other for centuries.

(02:43:49)
I met her parents for the first time a long time ago, almost six years ago as well. And I knew her parents were from Eastern Europe, originally. So I asked her father, what city did her family come from originally? And I called my father and asked him, “Dad, Grandpa Abraham, what’s the name of the city?” And then I put the two cities into Google Maps, and they were 52 miles apart. Which I thought was pretty cool.

(02:44:21)
Then of course at some point we did genetic testing, make sure we weren’t related, which we were not. But we share incredible commonality on values. We are attracted to the same kind of people. She loves my friends, I love hers. We love doing the same kind of things, we like spending time the same ways.

(02:44:46)
And she has more emotion, more elegance. She doesn’t like battles, but she’s very strong. But she’s more sensitive than I am.
Lex Fridman
(02:44:58)
Yeah, you are constantly in multiple battles at the same time, and there’s often the media, social media, it’s just fire everywhere.
Bill Ackman
(02:45:11)
That hasn’t really been the case for a while. I’ve had relative peace for a long time as I stopped being, as I haven’t had to be the kind of activist I was earlier in my career. I think since October 7th, yes, I do feel like I’ve been in a war.
Lex Fridman
(02:45:25)
Can you tell me the saga of the accusations against Neri?
Bill Ackman
(02:45:32)
So I did not actually surface the plagiarism allegations against President Gay that surfaced by Aaron and maybe Christopher Ruffo as well, or maybe Chris helped promote what Aaron and some anonymous person identified. But I certainly, it was a point in time where the board had said “We’re a hundred percent behind her,” and unanimously. And I really felt she had to go. So it didn’t bother me at all that they had identified problems with her work.

(02:46:02)
So I shared, I reposted those posts. And then when the board, she ultimately resigned and she got a $900,000 a year professorship continuing at Harvard, I said, look, in light of her limited academic record and these plagiarism allegations, she had to go.

(02:46:21)
I knew when I did so, I assumed I was actually a bit paranoid about that thesis I had written. I only had one academic work, but I hadn’t checked it for plagiarism. And I thought, that’s going to happen. Actually, I had someone, I did not have a copy on hand, so I got a copy of my thesis.

(02:46:42)
And I remember writing it, Harvard at the time was pretty, they kind of gave you a lecture about making sure you have all your footnotes and quotation marks. I learned later that apparently they had a copy of my thesis at the New York Public Library, and a member of the media told me he was there online with a dozen other members of the media all trying to get a copy of my thesis to run it through some AI. They had to first do optical character recognition to convert the paper document into digital.

(02:47:14)
But fortunately, through a miracle, I didn’t have an issue. I didn’t think about Neri of course, who has whatever, 130 academic works.

(02:47:25)
And so we were just at the end of a vacation for Christmas break, and it was early in the morning for a vacation time. And all of a sudden I hear my phone ringing in the other room, or vibrating in the other room multiple times. I’m like, hm.

(02:47:41)
I pick up the phone and saw our communication guy, Fran McGill. And he’s like, “Bill, Business Insider has apparently identified a number of instances of plagiarism in Neri’s dissertation. Let me send you this email.”

(02:47:53)
He sent me the email, and they had identified four paragraphs in her 330- page dissertation where she had cited the author, but she had used the vast majority of the words, and that those paragraphs were from the author, and she should have used quotation marks.

(02:48:10)
And then there was one case where she paraphrased correctly an author, but did not footnote that it was from his work.

(02:48:21)
And so we were presented with this and told, they’re going to publish in a few hours. And we’re like, “Well, can we get to the next day? We’re just about to head home.”

(02:48:28)
And they’re like, “No, we’re publishing by noon. We need an answer by noon.”

(02:48:32)
And so we downloaded the copy of her thesis on the slow internet. And Neri checked it out and she said, “You know what? Looks like they’re right.”

(02:48:42)
And I said, “Look, you should just admit your mistake.”

(02:48:45)
And she wrote a very simple, gracious, yes, I should have used quotation marks. And on the author I failed to cite, she pointed out that she cited them eight other times, and wrote a several-paragraph section of her thesis acknowledging his work.

(02:49:02)
And none of these were important parts of her thesis. But she acknowledged her mistake and she said, I apologize for my mistake, and I apologized to the author who I failed to cite. And I stand on the shoulders of all the people came before me, and looking to advance work. And we sort of thought it was over.

(02:49:19)
We head home. In-flight on the way home, although we didn’t realize this until we got back the following day, a Business Insider published another article and said, “Neri Oxman admits to plagiarism.” Plagiarism, of course, is academic fraud. And this thing goes crazy viral.

(02:49:37)
Oh, Bill Ackman the title is Bill Ackman’s Wife, Celebrity Academic, Mary Oxman. And they use the term celebrity because there are limits to what legitimate media can go after, but celebrities, there’s a lot more leeway in the media into what they can say. So that’s why they call her a celebrity. First time ever she’d been called a celebrity. And they basically, she’s admitting to academic fraud. And then they said … And then the next day at 5:19 PM, I remember the timeline pretty well, an email was sent to Fran McGill saying, “We’ve identified two dozen other instances of plagiarism in her work.” 15 of which are Wikipedia entries where she copied definitions, and the others were mostly software-hardware manuals for various devices or software she used in her work, most of which were in footnotes where she described a nozzle for a 3D printer or something like this.

(02:50:43)
And they said, “We’re publishing tonight.” The email they sent to us was 6,900 words. It was 12 pages. It was practically indecipherable. You couldn’t even read it in an hour. And we didn’t have some of the documents they were referring to.

(02:50:59)
And I’m like, “Neri, you know what I’m going to do? I think it’ll be useful to provide context here. I’m going to do a review of every MIT professor’s dissertations. Every published paper. AI has enabled this.”

(02:51:12)
And so that was, I put out a tweet basically saying that. And we’re doing a test run now, because we have to get it right, and I think it’ll be a useful exercise. Provide some context, if you will. And then this thing goes crazy viral. And Neri is a pretty sensitive person, pretty emotional person, and someone who’s a perfectionist. And having everyone in the world thinking you committed academic fraud is a pretty damning thing.

(02:51:40)
Now, they did say they did a thorough review of all of her work, and this is what they found. I’m like, sweetheart, that’s remarkable. I did 130 works, 73 of which were peer-reviewed, blah, blah, blah. And she’s published in Nature Science and all these different publications. That’s actually, it’s a pretty good batting average.

(02:51:56)
But this is wrong, this is not academic fraud. These are inadvertent mistakes. And the Wikipedia entries, Neri actually used Wikipedia as a dictionary. This is the early days of Wikipedia. And they also referred to the MIT handbook, which has a whole section on plagiarism, academic handbook.

(02:52:14)
And if you read it, which I ultimately did, they make clear a few things. Number one, there’s plagiarism, academic fraud. And there’s what they call inadvertent plagiarism, which is clerical errors where you make a mistake, and it depends on intent. And there’s a link that you can go to, which is a section on, if you get investigated at MIT, what happens? What’s the procedure, what’s the initial stage, what’s the investigative stage, what’s the procedure if they identify it? And they make very clear that academic fraud is, and they list plagiarism, research theft, a few other things, but it does not include honest errors. Honest errors are not plagiarism under MIT’s own policies.

(02:52:58)
And in the handbook, they also have a big section of what they call common knowledge. And common knowledge depends on who you’re writing your thesis for. And so if it’s a fact that is known by your audience, you’re not required to quote or cite.

(02:53:14)
And so all those Wikipedia entries were for things like sustainable design, computer-aided design. She just took a definition from Wikipedia, common knowledge to her readers, no obligation under the handbook, totally exempt.

(02:53:28)
On using the same words, she referred to whatever, some kind of 3D printer. She was, the Stratasys 3D Printer, and she quoted from the manual. Right away, Stratasys is a company you consulted for. That’s not something, you’re not stealing their ideas, you’re describing a nozzle for a device you use in your work in a footnote. That’s not a theft of idea.

(02:53:52)
And so I’m like, this is crazy. And so this has got to stop. And so I reach out to a guy I knew who was on the board of Business Insider, the chairman, and his name is going to come public shortly. I committed at that time to keep his name confidential, it’s now surfaced publicly in the press.
Lex Fridman
(02:54:11)
Can I just pause real quick here?
Bill Ackman
(02:54:13)
Sure.
Lex Fridman
(02:54:13)
Just to, I don’t know. There’s a lot of things I want to say. But you made it pretty clear. But just as a member of the community, there’s also a common sense test. I think you’re more precisely legal in looking at…
Bill Ackman
(02:54:31)
Sure.
Lex Fridman
(02:54:31)
But there’s just a bullshit test. And nothing that Neri did is plagiarism in the bad meaning of the word. Plagiarism right now is becoming another -ism, like racism or so on, used as an attack word. I don’t care what the meaning of it is, but there’s the bad academic fraud like theft, theft of an idea. And maybe you can say a lot of definitions and this kind of stuff. But then there’s just a basic bullshit test where everyone knows, this is a thief and this is definitely not a thief.

(02:55:05)
And there’s nothing about anything that Neri did, anything in her thesis or in her life. Everyone that knows her, she’s a rock star. I just want to make it clear, it really hurt me that the internet, whatever is happening, could go after a great scientist. Because I love science, and I love celebrating great scientists.

(02:55:33)
And it’s just really messed up that whatever the machine, we can talk about Business Insider or whatever, social media, mass hysteria, whatever is happening. We need the great scientists of the world, because the future depends on them. And so we need to celebrate them, and protect them, and let them flourish and do their thing.

(02:55:56)
And keep them out of this whatever shit-storm that we’re doing to get clicks, and advertisements, and drama and all this. We need to protect them. So I just want to say there’s nobody I know, and I have a million friends that are scientists, world-class scientists, Nobel Prize winners, they all love Neri, they all respect Neri, she did zero wrong.

(02:56:21)
And then the rest of the conversation we’re going to have about how broken journalism is, and so on. But I just want to say that there’s nothing that Neri did wrong. It’s not a gray area or so on.

(02:56:31)
I also personally don’t love that Claudine Gay is a discussion about plagiarism, because it distracts from the fundamentals that is broken, it becomes some weird technical discussion. But in case of Neri, did nothing wrong. Great scientist, great engineer at MIT and beyond. She’s doing the cool thing now.
Bill Ackman
(02:56:55)
Could not have said it better myself. Now, obviously I’m focusing the technical part…
Lex Fridman
(02:56:59)
Right. Because you have to be precise here.
Bill Ackman
(02:57:02)
Well, it’s not even that. I mean, yes, I have said that we’re going to sue Business Insider. And in 35 years of my career of someone who has, not every article has been a favorable one, not every article has been an accurate one, I’ve never threatened to sue the media. And I’ve never sued the media. But this is so egregious.

(02:57:23)
It’s not just that she did nothing wrong, but they accused her of academic fraud. They did it knowing, they make reference to MIT’s own handbook so they had to read all the same stuff that I read in the handbook, they did that work. Then, after I escalated this thing to Henry Blodget, the chairman of Business Insider, to the CEO of Axel Springer, I even reached out to Henry Kravis at a certain point in time, one of the controlling shareholders of the company through KKR, laying out the factual errors in the article.

(02:57:59)
Business Insider went public after they said Neri committed academic fraud and plagiarism. And said, we didn’t challenge any, the facts remain undisputed in the article.

(02:58:12)
So it’s basically, Neri committed plagiarism. That’s story one. Neri admits to plagiarism. She admits to plagiarism. She admitted to making a few clerical errors, that’s the only thing she admitted to, and she graciously apologized.

(02:58:25)
So they said, “Neri admits to plagiarism, apologizes for plagiarism.” That’s incredibly damning. ” And by the way, we’re doing an investigation because we’re concerned that there might’ve been inappropriate process, but the facts of the story have not been disputed by Neri Oxman or Bill Ackman.”

(02:58:41)
And that was totally false. I had done it privately, I’d done it publicly on Twitter, on X. I laid out, I have a whole tech stream, a WhatsApp stream with the CEO of the company. And they doubled down, and they doubled down again.

(02:58:56)
And so, I don’t sue people lightly. And stay tuned.
Lex Fridman
(02:59:02)
So you’re, at least for now, moving forward with…
Bill Ackman
(02:59:08)
It’s a certainty we’re moving forward. There’s a step we can take prior to suing them, where we basically send them a letter demanding they make a series of corrections. That if they don’t make those corrections, the next step is litigation. I hope we can avoid the next step.

(02:59:28)
And I’m just making sure that when we present the demand to Business Insider, and ultimately to Axel Springer, that it’s incredibly clear how they defamed her, the factual mistakes in our stories, and what they need to do to fix it. And if we can fix it there, we can move on from this episode and hopefully avoid litigation. So that’s where we are.
Lex Fridman
(02:59:51)
I don’t know. You’re smarter than me. There’s technical stuff, there’s legal stuff, there’s journalistic stuff. But just, fuck you Business Insider for doing this. I don’t know much in this world, but journalists aren’t supposed to do that.
Bill Ackman
(03:00:06)
Now look, we’re going to surface all this stuff publicly, ultimately. The email was not to Neri saying there was plagiarism in her work. The email came from a reporter named Catherine Long, and the headline was, “Your wife committed plagiarism. Shouldn’t she be fired from MIT, just like you caused Claudine Gay to be fired from Harvard?”

(03:00:27)
It was a political agenda. She doesn’t like me, and she was trying to hurt me, and they couldn’t find plagiarism in my thesis. And being a short seller, the Herbalife battle went on for years. They tried to do everything to destroy my reputation. So they’d already gone through my trash, they’d already done all that work. So anything they could possibly find, I’ve always lived a very clean life, thankfully. And if you’re going to be an activist short seller, you better. Because they’re going to find out dirt on you if it exists. And so they’re like, how can we really hurt Bill?

(03:01:07)
And by the way, Neri had left MIT years earlier. When the reporter found out she was no longer a member of the MIT faculty, they were enraged. They didn’t believe us. They made us prove to us she’s no longer on the MIT faculty, because they wanted to get her fired. And by the way, malice is one of the important factors in determining whether defamation is taking place. And this was a malice- driven, this was not about news.

(03:01:33)
And the unfortunate thing about journalism is Business Insider made a fortune from this. This story was published and republished by thousands of media organizations around the world. It was the number one trending thing on Twitter for two days. Every newspaper, it was on the front page of every Israeli newspaper, it was on the front page of the Financial Times.

(03:01:58)
And she’s building a business. And if you’re a CEO of a science company and you committed academic fraud, that’s incredibly damaging. But I ultimately convinced her that this was good.

(03:02:11)
I said, “Sweetheart, you’re amazing. You’re incredible. You’re incredibly talented, but you’re mostly known in the design world. Now everyone in the universe has heard of Neri Oxman. We’re going to get this thing cleared up. You’re going to be doing an event in six months where you’re going to tell the world, you’re going to go out of stealth mode, you’re going to tell the world about all the incredible things that you’re building, and you’re designing, and you’re creating. And it’s going to be like the iPhone launch, because everyone’s going to be paying attention and they’re going to want to see your work.”

(03:02:42)
And that’s how I try to cheer her up. But I think it’s true.
Lex Fridman
(03:02:45)
It is true. And you’re doing your job as a good partner, seeing the silver lining of all this. How is, just from observing her, how did she stay strong through all of this psychologically? Because at least I know she’s pushing ahead with the work.
Bill Ackman
(03:03:04)
Oh, she’s full speed ahead in her work. She’s built an amazing team, she’s hired 30 scientists, roboticists, people who, biologists, plant specialists, material scientists, engineers, really incredible crew. She’s built this 36,000 square-foot lab in New York City that’s one of a kind, they’re working out of it. It’s still under construction while they’re working out of it.

(03:03:28)
And so she’s going to do amazing things. But as I said, she’s an extremely sensitive person. She’s a perfectionist. Okay? Imagine thinking that the entire world thinks you committed academic fraud. And so that was very hard for her.

(03:03:44)
She’s a very positive person. But I saw her in, I would say, her darkest emotional period for sure. She’s doing much better now. But you can kill someone. You can kill someone by destroying their reputation. People commit suicide. People go into these deep, dark depression.
Lex Fridman
(03:04:05)
Well my worry, primarily, when I saw what Business Insider was doing, is that they might dim the light of a truly special scientist and creator.
Bill Ackman
(03:04:20)
It’s not going to happen.
Lex Fridman
(03:04:22)
But I also worry about others like Neri, young Neris, that this sends a signal that might scare them. And journalism shouldn’t scare aspiring young scientists.
Bill Ackman
(03:04:38)
The problem is the defamation law in the US is so favorable to the publisher, to the media, and so unfavorable to the victim. And the incentives are all wrong.

(03:04:53)
When you went from a paper version of journalism to digital, and you could track how many people click, and it’s a medium that advertising drives the economics. And if you can show an advertiser more clicks, you can make more money. So a journalist is incentivized to write a story that will generate more clicks. How do you write a story that generate more clicks? You get a billionaire guy, and then you go after his wife, and you make a sensationalist story. And you give them no time to respond, right?

(03:05:25)
Look at the timing here. On the first story, they gave us three hours. On the second one, the following day, 5:19 PM, the email comes in not to Neri, not to her firm, but to my communications person. Who tracks us down by 5:30, 10 minutes later. And they publish their story 92 minutes after.

(03:05:47)
And they sent us, “We’re going to surface all these documents in our demand.” Read the email they sent, whether you could even decipher it. There was no … And by the way, there’s a reason why academic institutions, when a professor’s accused…
Bill Ackman
(03:06:00)
The reason why academic institutions, when a professors accused of plagiarism, why they have these very careful processes with multiple stages and they can take a year or more because it depends on intent. Was this intentional? In order to be a crime, an academic crime, you got to prove that they intentionally stole. Look, in some cases it’s obvious. In some cases it’s very subtle and they take this stuff super seriously, but they basically accused Neri of academic crime. And then 92 minutes later, they said she committed an academic crime and that should be a crime and that should be punishable with litigation. And there should be a real cost. And we’re going to make sure there’s a real cost, reputationally and otherwise, to Business Insider and to Axel Springer. Because ultimately you got to look to the controlling owner. They’re responsible.
Lex Fridman
(03:06:50)
I’ll just say that you in this regard are inspiring to me for facing basically an institution that whole purpose is to write articles. So you’re like going into the fire.

X and free speech

Bill Ackman
(03:07:10)
My kid’s school, the epithet of the school, or the saying is go forth unafraid. I think it’s a good way to live. And again, words can’t harm me. The power of X, And we do owe Elon enormous thanks for this is now, so for example, the Washington Post wrote a story about me a couple days ago, and I didn’t think the story was a fair story. So within a few hours of the story being written, I’m able to put out a response to the story and send it to 1,200,000 people. And it gets read and reread. I haven’t checked, but probably 5 million people saw my response. Now, those are the people on X, It’s not everyone in the world. There’s a disconnection between the X world and the offline world. But reputation in my business is basically all you have. And as they say, you can take a lifetime to build a reputation and take five minutes to have a disappear.

(03:08:11)
And the media plays a very important role and they can destroy people. At least we now have some ability to fight back. We have a platform, we can surface our views. The typical old days, they write an incredibly damning article and you point out factual errors and then two months later they bury a little correction on page, whatever. By then the person was fired where their life was destroyed or the reputation’s damaged. It was with Warren Buffett talking about media, and it’s a business he really loves. He says, “You know what, Bill?” He said, “A thief with a dagger. The only person who cause you more harm than a thief with a dagger is a journalist with a pen.” And those were very powerful words.
Lex Fridman
(03:08:50)
So you think X, formerly known as Twitter, is a kind of neutralizing force to that, to the power of centralized institutions?
Bill Ackman
(03:09:00)
100%. And I think it’s a really important one, and it’s really been eye-opening for me to see how stories get covered in mainstream media. And then what I do on X is I follow people on multiple sides of an issue and you can or I post on a topic and I get to hear the other side. I read the replies. And the truth is something that people have had a lot of question about, particularly in the last, I would say five years beginning with Trump’s talking about fake news. And a lot of what Trump said about fake news is true. A big part of the world hated Trump and did everything they could to discredit him, destroy him.

(03:09:44)
And he did a lot of things perhaps deserving of being discredited. He is by a very imperfect and some cases harmful leader. But everything from pre-election, the Hunter Biden laptop story in the New York Post that then Twitter made difficult for people to share and to read. COVID, the Jay Bhattacharyas of the world, questioning the government’s response, questioning long-term lockdowns, questioning keeping kids out of school, questions about masks, about vaccines, which are still not definitively answered, no counterbalance to the power of the government when the government can shut down avenues for free speech and where the mainstream media has kind of towed the line in many stents to the government’s actions.

(03:10:49)
So having an independently owned powerful platform is very important for truth, for free speech, for hearing the other side of the story, for counterbalancing the power of the government. Elon is getting a lot of pushback. The SpaceXs and Teslas of the world are experiencing a lot of government questions and investigations. And even the President of the United States came out and said, “Look, he needs to be investigated.” I’m getting my own version of that in terms of some negative media articles. I don’t know what’s next. But yeah, if you stick your neck out in today’s world and you go against the establishment, or at least the existing administration, you can find yourself in a very challenged place. And that discourages people from sharing stuff. And that’s why anonymous speech is important, some of which you find on Twitter.

Trump

Lex Fridman
(03:11:46)
You mentioned Trump. I have to talk to you about politics.
Bill Ackman
(03:11:50)
Sure.
Lex Fridman
(03:11:50)
Amongst all the other battles, you’ve also been a part of that one. Maybe you can correct me on this, but you’ve been a big supporter of various democratic candidates over the years, but you did say a lot of nice things about Donald Trump in 2016, I believe.
Bill Ackman
(03:12:10)
So I was interviewed by Andrew Sorkin a week after Trump won the election.
Lex Fridman
(03:12:13)
Yes.
Bill Ackman
(03:12:14)
And I made my case for why I thought he could be a good president.
Lex Fridman
(03:12:16)
Yes. So what was the case back then? To which degree did that turn out to be true? And to which degree did not? To which degree was he a good president? To which degree was he not a good president?
Bill Ackman
(03:12:28)
Look, I think what I said at the time was the United States is actually a huge business. And it reminds me a bit of the type of activist investments we’ve taken on over time where this really, really great business has kind of lost its way. And with the right leadership, we can fix it. And if you think about the business of the United States today, right? You’ve got $32 trillion worth of debt over leveraged and or it’s highly leveraged, and the leverage is only increasing. We’re losing money, i.e., revenues aren’t covering expenses. The cost of our debt is going up as interest rates have gone up and the debt has to be rolled over. We have enormous administrative bloat in the country. The regulatory regime is incredibly complicated and burdensome and impeding growth. Our relations with our competitor nations and our friendly nations are far from ideal.

(03:13:23)
And those conditions were present in 2020 as well. They’re just, I would say worse now. And I said, “Look, it’s a great thing that we have a business man as president.” And in my lifetime was really the first businessman as opposed to, I mean, maybe Bush to some degree was a business person, but I thought, “Okay, I always wanted the CEO to be CEO of America.” And now we have Trump said, “Look, he’s got some personal qualities that seem less ideal, but he’s going to be President of the United States. He’s going to rise to the occasion. This is going to be his legacy, and he knows how to make deals and he’s going to recruit some great people into his administration.” I hoped. And growth can solve a lot of our problems. So if we can get rid of a bunch of regulations that are holding back the country, we can have a president.

(03:14:12)
Obama was a, I would say not a pro-business president. He did not love the business community. He did not love successful people. And having a president who just changed the tone on being a pro-business president, I thought it would be good for the country. And that’s basically what I said. And I would say Trump did a lot of good things and a lot of people, you can get criticized for acknowledging that, but I think the country’s economy accelerated dramatically. And that, by the way, the capitalist system helps the people at the bottom best when the system does well and when the economy does well.

(03:14:51)
The black unemployment rate was the lowest in history when Trump was president, and that’s true for other minority groups. So he was good for the economy, and he recognized some of the challenges and issues and threats of China early. He kind of woke up NATO. Now, again, the way he did all this stuff you can object to, but NATO actually started spending more money on defense in the early part of Trump’s presidency because of his threats, which turned out to be a good thing in light of ultimately the Russia-Ukraine war. And I think if you analyze Trump objectively based on policies, he did a lot of good for the country. I think what’s bad is he did some harm as well.

(03:15:40)
I do think civility disappeared in America with Trump as president. A lot of that’s his personal style. And how important is civility? I do think he was attacked very aggressively by the left, by the media that made him paranoid. It probably interfered with his ability to be successful. He had the Russian collusion investigation overhang, and when someone’s attacked, they’re not going to be at their best, particularly if they’re paranoid. I think there’s some degree of that, but I’m giving the best of defense of Trump. Just you look at how he managed his team, right? Very few people made it through the Trump administration without getting fired or quitting, and he would say they’re the greatest person in the world when he hired them, and they’re total disaster when he fired them. It’s not an inspiring way to be a leader and to attract really talented people.

(03:16:39)
I think the events surrounding the election, I think January 6th, he could have done a lot more to stop a riot. I don’t consider it an insurrection, but a riot that takes place in our capitol. And where police officers are killed or die, commit suicide for failure as they sought it to do their job. He stepped in way too late to stop that. He could have stopped it early. Many of his words, I think, inspired people, some of whom with malintent to go in there and cause harm, and literally to shut down the government. There were some evil people unfortunately there. So he’s been a very imperfect president and also I think contributed to the extreme amount of divisiveness in our country. So I was ultimately disappointed by the note of optimism. And again, I always support the president. I trust the people ultimately to select our next leader.

(03:17:37)
It’s a bit like who wants to be a millionaire? When you go to the crowd and the crowd says a certain thing, you got to trust the crowd. But usually in who wants to be a millionaire, it’s a landslide in one direction. So you know which letter to pick. Here, we had an incredibly close election, which itself is a problem. So my dream and what I’ve tried a little bit, played politics in the last little period to support some alternatives to Trump so that we have a president. I use the example, imagine you woke up in the morning, it’s election day, whatever it is, this November 4th, whatever, 2024, and you still haven’t figured out who to vote for because the candidates are so appealing that you don’t know which lever to pull because it’s a tough call. That’s the choice we should be making as Americans. It shouldn’t be, I’m a member of this party and I’m only going to vote this way. I’m a member of that party going to vote the other way and I hate the other side. And that’s where we’ve been, unfortunately for too long.
Lex Fridman
(03:18:31)
Or you might be torn because both candidates are not good.
Bill Ackman
(03:18:35)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(03:18:36)
I love a future where I’m torn because the choices are so amazing.
Bill Ackman
(03:18:42)
The problem is the party system is so screwed up and the parties are self-interested, and there’s another governance problem, an incentive problem. Michael Porter, who was one of my professors at Harvard Business School, wrote a brilliant piece on the American political system and all the incentives and market dynamics and what he called a competitive analysis. It’s a must read. I should dig it up and send it around on X, but it explains how the parties and the incentives of these sort of self-sustaining entities where the people involved are not incentivized to do what’s best for the country, it’s a problem.

Dean Phillips

Lex Fridman
(03:19:22)
You’ve been a supporter of Dean Phillips for the 2024 US presidential race.
Bill Ackman
(03:19:28)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(03:19:28)
What do you like about Dean?
Bill Ackman
(03:19:31)
I think he’s a honest, smart, motivated, capable, proven guy as a business leader. And I think in six, almost in his three terms in Congress, he ran when Trump was elected, he said his kids cried, his daughters cried, inspired him to run for office, ran in a Republican district in Minnesota for the last 60 years, was elected in the landslide, has been re-elected twice, moved up the ranks in the Congress, respected by his fellow members of Congress, advance some important legislation during COVID on senior roles, on various foreign policy committees. Centrist considered, I think the second most bipartisan member of the Congress. I’d love to have a bipartisan president. That’s the only way to go forward. But we’d enormously benefit if we had a president that chose policies on the basis of what’s best for the country as opposed to what his party wanted. What I like about him is he’s financially independent.

(03:20:36)
He’s not a billionaire, but he doesn’t need the job. The party hates him now because he challenged the king, but he was willing to give up his political career because what he thought was best for the country, he tried to get other people to run who were higher profile, had more name recognition. None would, no one wants to challenge Biden if they want to have a chance to stay in office or run in the future. But he’s very principled. I think he would be a great president, but his shot is Michigan, but he needs to raise money in order to… He’s only got a couple weeks and he’s got to be on TV there. That’s expensive. So we’ll see.
Lex Fridman
(03:21:16)
So he has to increase name recognition, all that kind of stuff. Also, as you mentioned, he’s young.
Bill Ackman
(03:21:21)
55. Yeah, but he’s a young 55. You see him play hockey.
Lex Fridman
(03:21:24)
Yeah. I mean, I guess 55 no matter what is a pretty young age.
Bill Ackman
(03:21:27)
I’m 57. I feel young. I can do more pull-ups today than I could as a kid. So that’s a standard.
Lex Fridman
(03:21:34)
You’re at the top of your tennis game.
Bill Ackman
(03:21:36)
I’m at the top of my tennis game for sure.
Lex Fridman
(03:21:38)
Maybe there’s someone that would disagree with that.
Bill Ackman
(03:21:40)
And by the way, the other thing to point out here is, and I have been pointing this out as of others, Biden is I think is done. I mean, it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for the country having him as a presidential candidate, let alone the president of the country. It’s crazy. And it’s just going to get worse and worse and should… The worst of his legacy is his ego that prevents him from stepping aside. And that’s it. It’s his ego. And it is so wrong and so bad and so embarrassing when you talk to people. I was in Europe, I was in London a few days ago, and people are like, “Bill, how can this guy be a president?” And it’s a bit like, again, I go back to my business analogy. Being a CEO is like a full contact sport. Being President of the United States is like some combination of wrestling, marathon running, being a triathlete.

(03:22:36)
I mean, you got to be at the serious physical shape and at the top of your game to represent this country. And he is a far cry from that. And it’s just getting worse, and it’s embarrassing. And he cannot be. And by the way, every day he waits, he’s handing the election to Trump because it’s harder and harder for an alternative candidate to surface. Now, Dean is the only candidate left on the Democratic side. They can still win delegates. He’s on the ballot in 42 states. And the best way for Biden to step aside is for Dean to show well in Michigan.
Lex Fridman
(03:23:11)
And so you think there is a path with the delegates and all that kind of stuff?
Bill Ackman
(03:23:14)
100%. So what has to happen is New Hampshire, he went from 0 to 20% of the vote and 10 weeks with no name recognition. I helped a little bit. Elon helped. We did a spaces for him. We had 350,000 people on the spaces. Some originally 40,000 live or something and then the rest after. And then he was on the ground in New Hampshire. And New Hampshire is one of the states where you don’t need to be registered to a party to vote for the candidate. So it’s like jump ball and you got 20%. And that’s with a lot of independents and Democrats voting for Haley.

(03:23:52)
Haley, who I like and who I’ve supported, does not look like she’s going to make it. Trump is really kind of running the table. And so vote for Haley as an independent Michigan, maybe throw away your vote. I think it increases the likelihood that Dean can get those independent votes if he could theoretically, again, he needs money, he could beat Biden in Michigan. Biden’s doing very poorly in Michigan. His polls are terrible. The Muslim community is not happy with him, and he really has spent no time there. And so if he’s embarrassed in Michigan, it could be a catalyst for him withdrawing.

(03:24:29)
Then Dean will get funding if he wins Michigan or shows well in Michigan, and people say he’s viable. He’s the only choice we have. He’ll attract from the center, he’ll attract from people, Republicans who won’t vote for Trump, of which there are a big percentage, could be 60% or more. It could be 70% won’t vote for Trump and also from the Democrats. So I think he’s a really interesting candidate, but we’ve got to get the word out.
Lex Fridman
(03:24:53)
I gotten a chance to chat with Dean. I really like him. I really like him. And I think the next President of the United States is going to have to meet and speak regularly with Zelensky, Putin, [inaudible 03:25:07], with world leaders and have some of the most historic conversations, agreements, negotiations. And I just don’t see Biden doing that.
Bill Ackman
(03:25:17)
No.
Lex Fridman
(03:25:18)
And not for any reason, but sadly, age.
Bill Ackman
(03:25:23)
Think about it this way. When Biden’s present now, you saw his recent impromptu press conference, which he did after the special prosecutor report, basically saying the guy was way past his prime, and then he confused the president of Mexico and the president of Egypt. So they’re very careful when they roll him out and he’s scripted and he’s always reading from a lectern. Imagine the care they have in exposing him, and when they expose him, it’s terrible. Okay. Imagine how bad it is for real.
Lex Fridman
(03:25:55)
It’s not good.
Bill Ackman
(03:25:56)
No, really bad for America. And I’m upset with him and upset with his family. I’m upset with his wife. This is the time where the people closest to you have to put their arms around you and say, “Dad, honey, you’ve done your thing. This is going to be your legacy and it’s not going to be a good one.”
Lex Fridman
(03:26:16)
Great leaders should also know when to step down.
Bill Ackman
(03:26:19)
Yeah. One of the best tests of a leader is succession planning. This is a massive failure of succession planning.

Future

Lex Fridman
(03:26:26)
Outside of politics, let me look to the future, first, in terms of the financial world, what are you looking forward to in the next couple of years? You have a new fund. What are you thinking about in terms of investment, your own and the entire economy, and maybe even the economy of the world?
Bill Ackman
(03:26:52)
Sure. So the SEC doesn’t like us to talk about new funds that we’re launching, that we filed with the SEC.
Lex Fridman
(03:27:00)
Sure.
Bill Ackman
(03:27:02)
But I would say I do, and by the way, if anyone’s ever interested in a fund, they should always read the prospectus carefully, including the risk factors. That’s very, very important. But I like the idea of democratizing access to good investors, and I think that’s an interesting trend. So we want to be part of that trend. In terms of financial markets, generally the economy, a lot is going to depend upon the next leader of the country. So we’re kind of right back there. The leadership of the United States is important for the US economy. It’s important for the global economy, it’s important for global peace, and we’ve gone through a really difficult period, and it’s time. We need a break. But look, I think the United States is an incredibly resilient country.

(03:27:45)
We have some incredible moats among them. We have the Atlantic and the Pacific, and we have peaceful neighbors to the north and the South. We’re an enormously rich country. Capitalism still works effectively here. I get optimistic about the world when I talk to my friends who are either venture capitalists or my hobby of backing these young entrepreneurs. I talked to a founder of a startup, if you want to get optimistic about the world. So I think technology is going to save us. I think AI, of course, has its frightening, Terminator-like scenarios. But I’m going to take the opposite view that this is going to be a huge enabler of productivity, scientific discovery, drug discovery, and it’s going to make us healthier, happier, and better. So I do think the internet revolution had a lot of good, obviously some bad. I think the AI revolution’s going to be similar, but we’re at this other really interesting juncture in the world with technology, and we’re going to have to use it for our good.

(03:28:47)
On the media front, I’m happy about X, and I think Elon’s going to be successful here. I think advertisers will realize it’s a really good platform. The best way to reach me, if you want to sell something to me, I’ve actually bought stuff on some ads in X. I don’t remember the last time I responded to a direct response advertising. In terms of my business, I have an incredible team. It’s tiny. We’re one of the smallest firms relative to the assets we manage. It’s a bit like the Navy SEALs, not the US Army. We have only 40 people at Pershing Square. So it’s a tight team. I think we’ll do great things. I think we’re early on my ambitions investment-wise, I’ve always said I’d like to have a record as good as Warren Buffett’s. The problem is, each year he adds on another year.

(03:29:38)
He’s now in his 93rd year. So I’ve got 36 more years to just get where he is, and I think he’s going to add a lot more years. I’m excited about seeing what Neri is going to produce. She’s building an incredible company. They’re trying to solve a lot of problems with respect to products and buildings and their impact on the environment. Her vision is how do we design products that by virtue of the product’s existence, the world is a better place. Today, her world is a world where the existence of the new car actually is better for the environment than if the new car hadn’t existed. And think about that in every product scale, that’s what she’s working on. I don’t want to give away too much, but you’re going to see some early examples of what she’s working on. So again, I get excited about the future and crises are sort of a terrible thing to waste.

(03:30:31)
And we’ve had a number of these here. I think this disaster in the Middle East, my prediction is the next few months, this war will largely be over in terms of getting rid of Hamas. I think I can envision a world in which Saudi Arabia, some of the other Gulf states come together, take over the governance and reconstruction of Gaza. Security guarantees are put in place. The Abraham Accords continue to grow. A deal is made. Terrorists are ostracized that this October 7th experience on the Harvard, Penn, MIT, Columbia, unfortunately, other campuses is a wake-up call for universities. Generally, people see the problems with DEI, but understand the importance of diversity and inclusion, but not as a political movement, but as a way that we return to a meritocratic world where someone’s background is relevant in understanding their contribution, but we don’t have race quotas and things that were made illegal years ago actually being implemented in organizations on campus. So I think there’s, if we can go through a corrective phase, and I’m an optimist and I hope we get there.
Lex Fridman
(03:31:47)
So you have hope for the entirety of it, even for Harvard.
Bill Ackman
(03:31:51)
I have hope, even for Harvard, it’s generally hard to break 400 year old things.
Lex Fridman
(03:31:56)
Well, I share your hope and you are a fascinating mind, a brilliant mind, persistent as you like to say. And fearless, the fearless part is truly inspiring, and this was an incredible conversation. Thank you. Thank you for talking today, Bill.
Bill Ackman
(03:32:13)
Thank you, Lex.
Lex Fridman
(03:32:14)
Thanks for listening to this conversation with Bill Ackman. To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, let me leave you some words from Jonathan Swift, “A wise person should have money in their head, but not in their heart.” Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.

Transcript for Marc Raibert: Boston Dynamics and the Future of Robotics | Lex Fridman Podcast #412

This is a transcript of Lex Fridman Podcast #412 with Marc Raibert.
The timestamps in the transcript are clickable links that take you directly to that point in
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Table of Contents

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Introduction

Marc Raibert
(00:00:00)
BigDog became LS3, which is the big load carrying one.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:04)
Just a quick pause. It can carry 400 pounds.
Marc Raibert
(00:00:08)
It was designed to carry 400, but we had it carrying about 1,000 pounds at one time.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:12)
Of course you did. Just to make sure.
Marc Raibert
(00:00:15)
We had one carrying the other one. We had two of them, so we had one carrying the other one.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:19)
So one of the things that stands out about the robots Boston Dynamics have created is how beautiful the movement is, how natural the walking is and running is, even flipping, it’s throwing is, so maybe you can talk about what’s involved in making it look natural.
Marc Raibert
(00:00:37)
Well, I think having good hardware is part of the story, and people who think you don’t need to innovate hardware anymore are wrong.
Lex Fridman
(00:00:49)
The following is a conversation with Marc Raibert, a legendary roboticist, founder and longtime CEO of Boston Dynamics, and recently the Executive Director of the newly created Boston Dynamics AI Institute, that focuses on research and the cutting edge, on creating future generations of robots that are far better than anything that exists today. He has been leading the creation of incredible legged robots for over 40 years at CMU, at MIT, the legendary MIT Leg Lab, and then of course, Boston Dynamics with amazing robots like BigDog, Atlas, Spot, and Handle. This was a big honor and pleasure for me.

(00:01:35)
This is the Lex Friedman Podcast. To support it, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, dear friends, here’s Marc Raibert. When did you first fall in love with robotics?

Early robots

Marc Raibert
(00:01:47)
Well, I was always a builder from a young age. I was lucky. My father was a frustrated engineer, and by that, I mean he wanted to be an aerospace engineer, but his mom from the old country thought that that would be like a grease monkey, and so she said no. So he became an accountant.

(00:02:10)
But the result of that was our basement was always full of tools and equipment and electronics, and from a young age, I would watch him assembling an ICO kit or something like that. I still have a couple of his old ICO kits.

(00:02:27)
But it was really during graduate school when I followed a professor back from class. It was Berthold Horn at MIT, and I was taking an interim class. It’s IAP, Independent Activities Period. And I followed him back to his lab, and on the table was a [inaudible 00:02:50] robot arm taken apart in probably a thousand pieces. And when I saw that, from that day on, I was a roboticist.
Lex Fridman
(00:02:58)
Do you remember the year?
Marc Raibert
(00:02:59)
1974.
Lex Fridman
(00:03:02)
1974. So there’s just this arm in pieces.
Marc Raibert
(00:03:04)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:03:04)
And you saw the pieces and you saw in your vision the arm when it’s put back together and the possibilities that holds.
Marc Raibert
(00:03:12)
Somehow it spurred my imagination. I was in the branding cognitive sciences department as a graduate student doing neurophysiology. I’d been an electrical engineer as an undergrad at Northeastern. And the neurophysiology wasn’t really working for me. It wasn’t conceptual enough. I couldn’t see really how by looking at single neurons, you were going to get to a place where you could understand control systems or thought or anything like that. And the AI lab was always an appealing. This was before, [inaudible 00:03:47]. This was in the ’70s. So the AI lab was always an appealing idea. And so when I went back to the AI lab following him and I saw the arm, I just thought, “This is it.”
Lex Fridman
(00:03:58)
It’s so interesting, the tension between the BCS, brain cognitive science approach to understanding intelligence, and the robotics approach to understanding intelligence.
Marc Raibert
(00:04:09)
Well, BCS is now morphed. They have the Center for Brains, minds and Machines, which is trying to bridge that gap. And even when I was there, David Maher was in the AI lab. David Maher had models of the brain that were appealing both to biologists but also to computer people. So he was a visitor in the AI lab at the time, and I guess he became full-time there.

(00:04:34)
So that was the first time a bridge was made between those two groups then the bridge kind of went away, and then there was another time in the ’80s. And then recently the last five or so years, there’s been a stronger connection.
Lex Fridman
(00:04:48)
You said you were always kind of a builder. What stands out to you in memory of a thing you’ve built, maybe a trivial thing that just kind of inspired you in the possibilities that this direction of work might hold?
Marc Raibert
(00:05:02)
We were just doing gadgets when we were kids. I have a friend, we were taking the… I don’t know if everybody remembers, but fluorescent lights had this little aluminum cylinder, I can’t even remember what it’s called now that you needed a starter, I think it was. And we would take those apart, fill them with match heads, put a tail on it and make it into little rockets.
Lex Fridman
(00:05:27)
So it wasn’t always about function, it was, well…
Marc Raibert
(00:05:30)
Rocket was pretty [inaudible 00:05:32].
Lex Fridman
(00:05:32)
I guess that is pretty functional. But yeah, I guess that is a question. How much was it about function versus just creating something cool?
Marc Raibert
(00:05:39)
I think it’s still a balance between those two. There was a time though, I guess I was probably already a professor or maybe late in graduate school, when I thought that function was everything and that mobility, dexterity, perception and intelligence, those are the key functionalities for robotics, that that’s what mattered. And nothing else mattered.

(00:06:04)
And I even had kind of this platonic ideal that a robot, if you just looked at a robot and it wasn’t doing anything, it would look like a pile of junk, which a lot of my robots looked like in those days. But then when it started moving, you’d get the idea that it had some kind of life or some kind of interest in its movement, and I think we purposely even designed the machines not worrying about the aesthetics of the structure itself. But then it turns out that the aesthetics of the thing itself add and combine with the lifelike things that the robots can do. But the heart of it is making them do things that are interesting.

Legged robots

Lex Fridman
(00:06:47)
One of the things that underlies a lot of your work is that the robots you create, the systems you have created for over 40 years now have a kind of, they’re not cautious. So a lot of robots that people know about move about this world very cautiously, carefully, very afraid of the world. A lot of the robots you built, especially in the early days, were very aggressive under actuated. They’re hopping, they’re wild, moving quickly. So is there a philosophy under underlying that?
Marc Raibert
(00:07:20)
Well, let me tell you about how I got started on legs at all. When I was still a graduate student, I went to a conference. It was a biological legged locomotion conference, I think it was in Philadelphia. So it was all biomechanics people, researchers who would look at muscle and maybe neurons and things like that. They weren’t so much computational people, but they were more biomechanics and maybe there were a thousand people there.

(00:07:45)
And I went to a talk. All the talks were about the body of either animals or people and respiration, things like that. But one talk was by a robotics guy, and he showed a six legged robot that walked very slowly. It always had at least three feet on the ground, so it worked like a table or a chair with tripod stability, and it moved really slowly.

(00:08:12)
And I just looked at that and said, wow, that’s wrong. That’s not anything like how people and animals work because we bounce and fly. We have to predict what’s going to happen in order to keep our balance when we’re taking a running step or something like that. We use the springiness in our legs, our muscles and our tendons and things like that as part of the story. The energy circulates. We don’t just throw it away every time.

(00:08:40)
I’m not sure I understood all that when I first thought, but I definitely got inspired to say, “Let’s try the opposite.” And I didn’t have a clue as to how to make a hopping robot work, not balance in 3D. In fact, when I started, it was all just about the energy of bouncing, and I was going to have a springy thing in the leg and some actuator so that you could get an energy regime going of bouncing.

(00:09:08)
And the idea that balance was an important part of it didn’t come until a little later. And then I made the pogo stick robots. Now I think that we need to do that in manipulation. If you look at robot manipulation, a community has been working on it for 50 years. We’re nowhere near human levels of manipulation. It’s come along, but I think it’s all too safe.

(00:09:35)
And I think trying to break out of that safety thing of static grasping. If you look at a lot of work that goes on, it’s about the geometry of the part, and then you figure out how to move your hand so that you can position it with respect to that, and then you grasp it carefully and then you move it. Well, that’s not anything like how people and animals work. We juggle in our hands, we hug multiple objects and can sort them. So.

(00:10:03)
Now to be fair, being more aggressive is going to mean things aren’t going to work very well for a while, so it’s a longer term approach to the problem, and that’s just theory now. Maybe that won’t pay off, but that’s how I’m trying to think about it, trying to encourage our group to go at it.
Lex Fridman
(00:10:22)
Well, we’ll talk about what it means to what is the actual thing we’re trying to optimize for a robot, sometimes, especially with human robot interaction, maybe flaws is a good thing. Perfection is not necessarily the right thing to be chasing. Just like you said, maybe being good at fumbling an object, being good at fumbling might be the right thing to optimize versus perfect modeling of the object and perfect movement of the arm to grasp that object as maybe perfection is not supposed to exist in the real world.
Marc Raibert
(00:10:57)
I don’t know if you know my friend Matt Mason, who is the director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon, and we go back to graduate school together, but he analyzed a movie of Julia Child’s doing a cooking thing, and she did, I think he said something like there were 40 different ways that she handled a thing and none of them was grasping. She would nudge, roll, flatten with her knife, things like that. And none of them was grasping.
Lex Fridman
(00:11:28)
So okay, let’s go back to the early days. First of all, you’ve created and led the Leg Lab, the legendary Leg Lab at MIT. So what was that first hopping robot?
Marc Raibert
(00:11:38)
But first of all, the Leg Lab actually started at Carnegie Mellon.
Lex Fridman
(00:11:41)
Carnegie Mellon.
Marc Raibert
(00:11:42)
So I was a professor there starting in 1980, about 1986, so that’s where the first topping machines were built. I guess we got the first one working in about 1982, something like that. That was a simplified one. Then we got a three-dimensional one in 1983, the quadruped that we built at the Leg Lab, the first version was built in about 1984 or five, and really only got going about ’86 or so, and took years of development to get it to…
Lex Fridman
(00:12:17)
Let’s just pause here. For people who don’t know, I’m talking to Mark Weber, founder of Boston Dynamics. But before that, you were a professor developing some of the most incredible robots for 15 years. And before that, of course, a grad student and all that. So you’ve been doing this for a really long time. You skipped over this, but go to the first hopping robot. There’s videos of some of this.

(00:12:38)
These are incredible robots. You talked about the very first step was to get a thing hopping up and down, and then you realized, well, balancing is a thing you should care about, and it’s actually a solvable problem. Can you just go through how to create that robot? What was involved in creating that robot?
Marc Raibert
(00:13:00)
Well, I’m going to start on not the technical side, but I guess we could call it the motivational side or the funding side. So before Carnegie Mellon, I was actually at JPL at the Jet Propulsion Lab for three years. And while I was there, I connected up with Ivan Sutherland, who is sometimes regarded as the father of computer graphics because of work he did both at MIT and then University of Utah and Evanston Sutherland.

(00:13:28)
Anyway, I got to know him and at one point he said he encouraged me to do some kind of project at Caltech, even though I was at JPL. Those are kind of related institutions. And so I thought about it and I made up a list of three possible projects, and I purposely made the top one and the bottom one really boring sounding. And in the middle I put Pogo stick robot. And when he looked at it, Ivan is a brilliant guy, brilliant engineer, and a real cultivator of people. He looked at it and knew right away what thing that was worth doing. And so he had an endowed chair, so he had about $3,000 that he gave me to build the first model, which I went I to the shop and with my own hands kind of made a first model, which didn’t work and was just a beginning shot at it.

(00:14:32)
Ivan and I took that to Washington. And in those days you could just walk into DARPA and walk down the hallway and see who’s there, and Ivan, who had been there in his previous life. And so we walked around and we looked in the offices. Of course, I didn’t know anything. I was basically a kid, but Ivan knew his way around, and we found Craig Fields in his office.

(00:14:54)
Craig later became the director of DARPA, but in those days, he was a program manager. And so we went in, I had a little Samsonite suitcase, which we opened, and it had just the skeleton of this one-legged hopping robot. And we showed it to him, and you could almost see the drool going down his chin of excitement. And he sent me $250,000. He said, “Okay, I want to fund this.”

(00:15:19)
And I was between institutions, I was just about to leave JPL, and I hadn’t decided yet where I was going next, and then when I landed at CMU, he sent $250,000, which in 1980 was a lot of research money.
Lex Fridman
(00:15:34)
Did you see the possibility of where this is going, why this is an important problem?
Marc Raibert
(00:15:39)
No.
Lex Fridman
(00:15:41)
It has to do with leg locomotion. I mean, it has to do with all these problems that the human body solves when we’re walking, for example. All the fundamentals are there.
Marc Raibert
(00:15:51)
Yeah, I think that was the motivation to try and get more at the fundamentals of how animals work, but the idea that it would result in machines that were anything practical like we’re making now, that wasn’t anywhere in my head. As an academic, I was mostly just trying to do the next thing, make some progress, impress my colleagues if I could.
Lex Fridman
(00:16:14)
And have fun.
Marc Raibert
(00:16:15)
And have fun.
Lex Fridman
(00:16:16)
Pogo stick robot.
Marc Raibert
(00:16:17)
Pogo stick robot.
Lex Fridman
(00:16:18)
So what was on the technical side? What are some of the challenges of getting to the point where we saw in the video the pogo stick robot that’s actually successfully hopping and then eventually doing flips and all this kind of stuff?
Marc Raibert
(00:16:31)
Well, in the very early days, I needed some better engineering than I could do myself, and I hired Ben Brown. We each had our way of contributing to the design, and we came up with a thing that could start to work. I had some stupid ideas about how the actuation system should work, and we sorted that out.

(00:16:52)
It wasn’t that hard to make it balanced once you get the physical machine to be working well enough and have enough control over the degrees of freedom. We started out by having it floating on an inclined air table, and then that only gave us like six foot of travel, so once it started working, we switched to a thing that could run around the room on another device. It’s hard to explain these without you seeing them, but you probably know what I’m talking about, a planarize.

(00:17:23)
And then the next big step was to make it work in 3D, which that was really the scary part with these simple things. People had inverted pendulums at the time for years, and they could control them by driving a cart back and forth, but could you make it work in three dimensions while it’s bouncing and all that? But it turned out not to be that hard to do, at least at the level of performance we achieved at the time.
Lex Fridman
(00:17:46)
Okay. You mentioned inverted pendulum, but can you explain how a hopping stick in 3D can balance itself?
Marc Raibert
(00:17:57)
Yeah, sure.
Lex Fridman
(00:17:58)
What does the actuation look like?
Marc Raibert
(00:18:01)
The simple story is that there’s three things going on. There’s something making it bounce. And we had a system that was estimating how high the robot was off the ground and using that. There’s energy that can be in three places in a pogo stick: one is in the spring, one is in the altitude, and the other is in the velocity. And so when at the top of the hop, it’s all in the height, so you could just measure how high you’re going, and thereby have an idea of a lot about the cycle, and you could decide whether to put more energy in or less. That’s one element.

(00:18:40)
Then there’s a part that you decide where to put the foot. And if you think when you’re landing on the ground with respect to the center of mass. So if you think of a pole vaulter, the key thing the pole vaulter has to do is get its body to the right place when the pole gets stuck. If they’re too far forward, they kind of get thrown backwards. If they’re too far back, they go over. And what they need to do is get it so that they go mostly up to get over the thing. And high jumpers is the same kind of thing. So there’s a calculation about where to put the foot, and we did something relatively simple.

(00:19:16)
And then there’s a third part to keep the body at an attitude that’s upright, because if it gets too far, you could hop and just keep rotating around. But if it gets too far, then you run out of motion of the joints at the hips. So you have to do that. And we did that by applying a torque between the legs and the body. Every time the foot’s on the ground. You only can do it while the foot’s on the ground in the air. The physics don’t work out.
Lex Fridman
(00:19:42)
How far does it have to tilt before it’s too late to be able to balance itself or it’s impossible to balance itself, correct itself?
Marc Raibert
(00:19:50)
Well, you’re asking an interesting question because in those days, we didn’t actually optimize things and they probably could have gone much further than we did and then had higher performance, and we just kind of got a sketch of a solution and worked on that. And then in years since, some people working for us, some people working for others, people came up with all kinds of equations or algorithms for how to do a better job, be able to go faster.

(00:20:19)
One of my students worked on getting things to go faster. Another one worked on climbing over obstacles. Because when you’re running on the open ground, it’s one thing; if you’re running up a stair, you have to adjust where you are, otherwise things don’t work out. You land your foot on the edge of the steps. There’s other degrees of freedom to control if you’re getting to more realistic, practical situations.
Lex Fridman
(00:20:44)
I think it’s really interesting to ask about the early days because believing in yourself, believing that there’s something interesting here. And then you mentioned finding somebody else, Ben Brown. What’s that like, finding other people with whom you can build this crazy idea and actually make it work?
Marc Raibert
(00:21:00)
Probably the smartest thing I ever did is to find the other people. When I look at it now, I look at Boston Dynamics and all the really excellent engineering there, people who really make stuff work, I’m only the dreamer.
Lex Fridman
(00:21:16)
So when you talk about pogo stick robot or legged robots, whether it’s quadrupeds or humanoid robots, did people doubt that this is possible? Did you experience a lot of people around you kind of…
Marc Raibert
(00:21:29)
I don’t know if they doubted whether it was possible, but I think they thought it was a waste of time.
Lex Fridman
(00:21:34)
Oh, it’s not even an interesting problem.
Marc Raibert
(00:21:36)
I think for a lot of people. I think it’s been both, though. Some people, I felt like they were saying, “Oh, why are you wasting your time on this stupid problem?” But then I’ve been at many things where people have told me it’s been an inspiration to go out and attack these harder things. And I think legged locomotion has turned out to be a useful thing.
Lex Fridman
(00:22:06)
Did you ever have doubt about bringing Atlas to life, for example, or with Big Dog just every step of the way? Did you have doubt? This is too hard of a problem.
Marc Raibert
(00:22:19)
At first, I wasn’t an enthusiast for the humanoids. Again, it goes back to saying “what’s the functionality?” And the form wasn’t as important as the functionality. And also, there’s an aspect to humanoid robots that’s about about the cosmetics, where there isn’t really other functionality, and that kind of is off putting for me. As a roboticist, I think the functionality really matters. So probably that’s why I avoided the humanoid robots to start with.

(00:22:51)
But I’ll tell you, after we started working on them, you could see that the connection and the impact with other people, whether they’re laypeople or even other technical people, there’s a special thing that goes on, even though most of the humanoid robots aren’t that much like a person.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:11)
But we anthropomorphize and we see the humanity. But also with Spot, you can see not the humanity, but whatever we find compelling about social interactions there in Spot, as well.
Marc Raibert
(00:23:24)
Well. I’ll tell you, I go around giving talks and take Spot to a lot of them, and it’s amazing. The media likes to say that they’re terrifying and that people are afraid, and YouTube commenters like to say that it’s frightening. But when you take a Spot out there, maybe it’s self-selecting, but you get a crowd of people who want to take pictures, want to pose for selfies, want to operate the robot, want to pet it, want to put clothes on it. It’s amazing.
Lex Fridman
(00:23:52)
Yeah, I love Spot. So if we move around history a little bit, so you said, I think, in the early days of Boston Dynamics that you quietly worked on making a running version of Aibo, Sony’s robot dog.
Marc Raibert
(00:24:05)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:24:06)
It’s just an interesting little tidbit of history for me. What stands out to your memory from that task? For people who don’t know, that little dog robot moves slowly. How did that become Big Dog? What was involved there? What was the dance between how do we make this cute little dog versus a thing that can actually carry a lot of payload and move fast and stuff like that?
Marc Raibert
(00:24:29)
What the connection was is that at that point, Boston Dynamics was mostly a physics-based simulation company. So when I left MIT to start Boston Dynamics, there was a few years of overlap, but the concept wasn’t to start a robot company. The concept was to use this dynamic simulation tool that we developed to do robotics for other things. But working with Sony, we got back into robotics by doing the IBO Runner, we made some tools for programming Curio, which was a small humanoid this big that could do some dancing and other kinds of fun stuff. And I don’t think it ever reached the market, even though they did show it. When I look back, I say that we got us back where we belonged.
Lex Fridman
(00:25:14)
Yeah, you rediscovered the soul of the company.
Marc Raibert
(00:25:17)
That’s right.
Lex Fridman
(00:25:18)
And so from there, it was always about robots.
Marc Raibert
(00:25:21)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:25:23)
So you started Boston Dynamics in 1992.

Boston Dynamics

Marc Raibert
(00:25:27)
Right.
Lex Fridman
(00:25:28)
What are some fond memories from the early days?
Marc Raibert
(00:25:31)
One of the robots that we built wasn’t actually a robot, it was a surgical simulator, but it had force feedback, so it had all the techniques of robotics, and you look down into this mirror, it actually was, and it looked like you were looking down onto the body you were working on. Your hands were underneath the mirror where you were looking, and you had tools in your hands that were connected up to these force feedback devices made by another MIT spin out, Sensible Technologies.
Marc Raibert
(00:26:00)
Another MIT spin out sensible technologies. So they made the force feedback device, we attached the tools and we wrote all the software and did all the graphics. So we had 3D computer graphics. It was in the old days, this was in the late 90s when you had a Silicon Graphics computer that was about this big. It was the heater in the office basically.

(00:26:24)
And we were doing surgical operations’ anastomosis, which was stitching tubes together. Tubes like blood vessels or other things in their body. And you could feel, you could see the tissues move. And it was really exciting. And the idea was to make a trainer to teach surgeons how to do stuff. We built a scoring system because we’d interviewed surgeons that told us what you’re supposed to do and what you’re not supposed to do.

(00:26:50)
You’re not supposed to tear the tissue, you’re not supposed to touch it in any place except for where you’re trying to engage. There were a bunch of rules. So we built this thing and took it to a trade show, a surgical trade show, and the surgeons were practically lined up. Well, we kept a score and we posted their scores on a video game. And those guys are so competitive that they really, really loved doing it.

(00:27:13)
And they would come around and they see someone’s score was higher there, so they would come back. But we figured out shortly after, that we thought surgeons were going to pay us to get trained on these things and the surgeons thought we should pay them so they could teach us about the thing. And there was no money from the surgeons. And we looked at it and thought, well, maybe we could sell it to hospitals that would train their surgeons.

(00:27:39)
And then we said, at the time we were probably a 12 person company or maybe 15 people, I don’t remember, there’s no way we could go after a marketing activity. The company was all bootstrapped in those years. We never had investors until Google bought us, which was after 20 years. So we didn’t have any resources to go after hospitals. So one day, Rob and I were looking at that and we’d built another simulator for knee arthroscopy and we said, “This isn’t going to work.” And we killed it. And we moved on. And that was really a milestone in the company because we sort of understood who we were and what would work and what wouldn’t. Even though technically it was really a fascinating thing.
Lex Fridman
(00:28:24)
What was that meeting like, where you’re just sitting at a table, “You know what? We’re going to pivot completely. We’re going to let go of this thing we put so much hard work into and then go back to the thing it came from.”
Marc Raibert
(00:28:39)
It just always felt right once we did it.
Lex Fridman
(00:28:42)
Just looked at each other and said, “Let’s build robots.”

BigDog

Marc Raibert
(00:28:44)
Yeah. What was the first robot you built under the flag of Boston Dynamics? BigDog?
Marc Raibert
(00:28:51)
Well, there was the Aibo runner, but it wasn’t even a whole robot. We took off the legs on Aibos and attached legs we’ve made. And we got that working and showed it to the Sony people. We worked pretty closely with Sony in those years. One of the interesting things is that it was before the internet and Zoom and anything like that.

(00:29:15)
So we had six ISDN lines installed and we would have a telecon every week that worked at very low frame rates, something like 10 hertz. English across the boundary with Japan was a challenge trying to understand what each of us was saying and have meetings every week for several years doing that.

(00:29:39)
And it was a pleasure working with them. They were really supporters. They seemed to like us and what we were doing. That was the real transition from us being a simulation company into being a robotics company again.
Lex Fridman
(00:29:51)
It was a quadruplet. The legs were four legs digital legs?
Marc Raibert
(00:29:55)
Yeah, no, four legs.
Lex Fridman
(00:29:56)
And what did you learn from that experience of building basically a fast moving quadruplet?
Marc Raibert
(00:30:03)
Mostly we learned that something that small doesn’t look very exciting when it’s running. It’s like it’s scampering and you had to watch a slow mo for it to look like it was interesting. If you watch it fast, it was just like a-
Lex Fridman
(00:30:17)
That’s funny.
Marc Raibert
(00:30:18)
One of my things was to show stuff in video from the very early days of the hopping machines. And so I was always focused on how’s this going to look through the Viewfinder and running Aibo didn’t look so cool through the Viewfinder.
Lex Fridman
(00:30:32)
So what came next? What was a big next milestone in terms of a robot you built?
Marc Raibert
(00:30:40)
I mean, you got to say that BigDog sort of put us on the map and got our heads really pulled together. We scaled up the company. BigDog was the result of Alan Rudolph at DARPA starting a biodynamics program. And he put out a request for proposals and I think there were 42 proposals written and three got funded.

(00:31:06)
One was BigDog, one was a climbing robot rise, and that put things in motion. We hired Martin Bueller, he was a professor in Montreal at McGill. He was incredibly important for getting BigDog out of the lab and into the mud, which was a key step to really be willing to go out there out and build it, break it, fix it, which is sort of one of our mottos at the company.
Lex Fridman
(00:31:32)
So testing it in the real world. For people who don’t know BigDog, maybe you can correct me, but it’s a big quadruplet four-legged robot. It looks big, could probably carry a lot of weight. Not the most weight that Boston Dynamics have built, but a lot.
Marc Raibert
(00:31:48)
Well, it’s the first thing that worked. So let’s see, if we go back to the leg lab, we built a quadruplet that could do many of the things that BigDog did, but it had a hydraulic pump sitting in the room with hoses connected to the robot. It had a VAX computer in the next room. It needed its own room because it was this giant thing with air conditioning and it had this very complicated bus connected to the robot.

(00:32:12)
And the robot itself just had the actuators. It had gyroscopes for sensing and some other sensors, but all the power and computing was off board. BigDog had all that stuff integrated on the platform. It had a gasoline engine for power, which was a very complicated thing to undertake. It had to convert the rotation of the engine into hydraulic power, which is how we actuated it. So there was a lot of learning just on building the physical robot and the system integration for that. And then there was the controls of it.
Lex Fridman
(00:32:49)
So for BigDog, you brought it all together onto one platform so-
Marc Raibert
(00:32:53)
You could take it out in the woods.
Lex Fridman
(00:32:55)
Yeah, and you did.
Marc Raibert
(00:32:56)
We did. We spent a lot of time down at the Marine Corps base in Quantico where there was a trail called the Guadalcanal Trail. And our milestone that DARPA had specified was that we could go on this one particular trail that involved a lot of challenge. And we spent a lot of time. Our team spent a lot of time down there hiking. Those were fun days.
Lex Fridman
(00:33:20)
Hiking with the robot. So what did you learn about what it takes to balance a robot like that on a trail, on a hiking trail in the woods? Basically, forget the woods. Just the real world. That’s the big leap into testing in the real world.
Marc Raibert
(00:33:36)
As challenging as the woods were, working inside of a home or in an office is really harder because when you’re in the woods, you can actually take any path up the hill. All you have to do is avoid the obstacles. There’s no such thing as damaging the woods, at least to first order. Whereas if you’re in a house, you can’t leave scuff marks, you can’t bang into the walls. The robots aren’t very comfortable bumping into the walls, especially in the early days.

(00:34:05)
So I think those were actually bigger challenges. Once we faced them, it was mostly getting the systems to work well enough together, the hardware systems to work. And the controls. In those days, we did have a human operator who did all the visual perception going up the Guadalcanal Trail. So there was an operator who was right there who was very skilled even though the robot was balancing itself and placing its own feet, if the operator didn’t do the right thing, it wouldn’t go.

(00:34:36)
But years later, we went back with one of the electric, the precursor to Spot, and we had advanced the controls and everything so much that a complete amateur could operate the robot the first time up and down and up and down. Whereas it taken us years to get there in the previous robot.
Lex Fridman
(00:34:55)
So if you fast-forward, BigDog eventually became Spot?
Marc Raibert
(00:34:59)
So BigDog became LS3, which is the big load carrying one.
Lex Fridman
(00:35:03)
Just a quick pause, it can carry 400 pounds?
Marc Raibert
(00:35:07)
It was designed to carry 400. But we had it carrying about a thousand pounds one time.
Lex Fridman
(00:35:12)
Of course you did. Just to make sure.
Marc Raibert
(00:35:14)
We had one carrying the other one. We had two of them, so we had one carrying the other one. There’s a little clip of that. We should put that out somewhere. That’s from 20 years ago.
Lex Fridman
(00:35:24)
Wow. And it can go for very long distances? You can travel the 20 miles.
Marc Raibert
(00:35:28)
Yeah. Gasoline.
Lex Fridman
(00:35:30)
Gasoline, yeah. And that event just… Okay, sorry. So LS3 then how did that lead to Spot?
Marc Raibert
(00:35:38)
So BigDog and LS3 had engine power and hydraulic actuation. Then we made a robot that was electric power. So there’s a battery driving a motor, driving a pump, but still hydraulic actuation. Larry asked us, “Could you make something that weighed 60 pounds, that would not be so intimidating if you had it in a house where there were people.”

(00:36:07)
And that was the inspiration behind the spot pretty much as it exists today. We did a prototype the same size that was the first all electric, non-hydraulic robot.
Lex Fridman
(00:36:19)
What was the conversation with Larry Page about? Here’s a guy that is very product focused and can see a vision for what the future holds. That’s just interesting aside, what was the brainstorm about the future of robotics with him?
Marc Raibert
(00:36:35)
I mean, it was almost as simple as what I just said. We were having meeting, he said, “Do you think you could make a smaller one that wouldn’t be so intimidating like a big dog if it was in your house?” And I said, “Yeah, we could do that.” And we started and did.

Hydraulic actuation

Lex Fridman
(00:36:52)
Is there a lot of technical challenges to go from hydraulic to electric?
Marc Raibert
(00:36:57)
I had been in love with hydraulics and still love hydraulics. It’s a great technology. It’s too bad that somehow the world out there looks at it like it’s old-fashioned or that it’s icky. And it’s true that you do. It is very hard to keep it from having some amount of dripping from time to time. But if you look at the performance, how strong you can get in a lightweight package, and of course we did a huge amount of innovation.

(00:37:26)
Most of hydraulic control, that is the valve that controls the flow of oil, had been designed in the 50s for airplanes. It had been made robust enough, safe enough that you could count on it so that humans could fly in airplanes and very little innovation had happened that might not be fair to the people who make the valves. I’m sure that they did innovate, but the basic had stayed the same and there was so much more you could do.

(00:37:56)
And so our engineers designed valves, the ones that are in Atlas for instance, that had new kinds of circuits, they sort of did some of the computing that could get you much more efficient use. They were much smaller and lighter so the whole robot could be smaller and lighter. We made a hydraulic power supply that had a bunch of components integrated in this tiny package.

(00:38:20)
It’s about this big, the size of a football weighs five kilograms and it produces five kilowatts of power. Of course it has to have a battery operating, but it’s got a motor, a pump filters, heat exchanger to keep it cool. Some valves all in this tiny little package. So hydraulics could still have a ways to go.

Natural movement

Lex Fridman
(00:38:44)
One of the things that stands out about the robots Boston Dynamics have created is how beautiful the movement is, how natural the walking is, and running is, even flipping is, throwing is. So maybe you can talk about what’s involved in making it look natural.
Marc Raibert
(00:39:02)
Well, I think having good hardware is part of the story and people who think you don’t need to innovate hardware anymore are wrong, in my opinion. So I think one of the things, certainly in the early years for me, taking a dynamic approach where you think about what’s the evolution of the motion of the thing going to be in the future and having a prediction of that that’s used at the time that you’re giving signals to it, as opposed to it all being sing, which is sing is sort of backward looking. It says, okay, where am I now? I’m going to try and adjust for that. But you really need to think about what’s coming.
Lex Fridman
(00:39:40)
So how far ahead you do, you have to look in time.
Marc Raibert
(00:39:44)
It’s interesting. I think that the number is only a couple of seconds for Spot. So there’s a limited horizon type approach where you’re recalculating assuming what’s going to happen in the next second or second and a half. And then you keep iterating at the next, even though a 10th of a second later you’ll say, okay, let’s do that again and see what’s happening.

(00:40:06)
And you’re looking at what the obstacles are, where the feet are going to be placed. You have to coordinate a lot of things. If you have obstacles and you’re balancing at the same time and it’s that limited horizon type calculation that’s doing a lot of that. But if you’re doing something like a somersault, you’re looking out a lot further. If you want to stick the landing, you have to, at the time of launch, have momentum and rotation, all those things coordinated so that a landing is within reach.
Lex Fridman
(00:40:38)
How hard is it to stick a landing? I mean, it’s very much under actuated. In the air, you don’t have as much control about anything. So how hard is it to get that to work? First of all, did flips with a hopping robot.
Marc Raibert
(00:40:57)
If you look at the first time we ever made a robot do a somersault, it was in a planer robot. It had a boom. So it was restricted to the surface of a sphere. We call that planer. So it could move fore-and-aft, it could go up and down and it could rotate. And so the calculation of what you need to do to stick a landing isn’t all that complicated. You have to get time to make the rotation.

(00:41:22)
So how high you jump gives you time. You look at how quickly you can rotate. And so if you get those two right, then when you land, you have the feet in the right place and you have to get rid of all that rotational and linear momentum. But that’s not too hard to figure out. And we made back in about 1985 or six, I can’t remember, we had a simple robot doing somersaults.

(00:41:50)
To do it in 3D, really the calculation is the same. You just have to be balancing in the other degrees of freedom. If you’re just doing a somersault, it’s just a plainer thing. Ron Robert was my graduate student and we were at MIT, which is when we made a two-legged robot do a 3D somersault for the first time. There, in order to get enough rotation rate you needed to do tucking also, withdraw the legs in order to accelerate it.

(00:42:15)
And he did some really fascinating work on how you stabilize more complicated maneuvers. You remember he was a gymnast at Champion Gymnast before he’d come to me. So he had the physical abilities and he was an engineer, so he could translate some of that into the math and the algorithms that you need to do that.
Lex Fridman
(00:42:37)
He knew how humans do it. You just have to get robots to do the same.
Marc Raibert
(00:42:41)
Unfortunately though, humans don’t really know how they do it, right. We are coached, we have ways of learning, but do we really understand in a physics way what we’re doing? Probably most gymnasts and athletes don’t know.
Lex Fridman
(00:42:57)
So in some way, by building robots, you are in part understanding how humans do walking. Most of us walk without considering how we walk really and how we make it so natural and efficient, all those kinds of things.
Marc Raibert
(00:43:10)
Atlas still doesn’t walk like a person and it still doesn’t walk quite as gracefully as a person. Even though it’s been getting closer and closer. The running might be close to a human, but the walking is still a challenge.
Lex Fridman
(00:43:23)
That’s interesting, right? That running is closer to a human. It just shows that the more aggressive and the more you leap into the unknown, the more natural it is. I mean, walking is kind of falling always right?
Marc Raibert
(00:43:37)
And something weird about the knee that you can do this folding and unfolding and get it to work out just a human can get it to work out just right, there’s compliances. Compliance means springiness in the design that are important to how it all works. Well, we used to have a motto at the Boston Dynamics in the early days, which was you have to run before you can walk.
Lex Fridman
(00:44:00)
That’s a good motto because you also had Wildcat, which was one of along the way towards Spot, which is a quadruplet that went 19 miles an hour on flat terrain. Is that the fastest you’ve ever built?
Marc Raibert
(00:44:14)
Oh, yeah.
Lex Fridman
(00:44:14)
Might be the fastest quadruplet in the world. I don’t know.
Marc Raibert
(00:44:17)
For a quadruplet, probably. Of course, it was probably the loudest too. So we had this little racing go-kart engine on it, and we would get people from three buildings away sending us… Complaining about how loud it was.

Leg Lab

Lex Fridman
(00:44:31)
So at the leg lab, I believe most of the robots didn’t have knees. How do you figure out what is the right number of actuators? What are the joints to have? What do you need to have? We humans have knees and all kinds of interesting stuff on the feet. The toe is an important part, I guess, for humans, or maybe it’s not.

(00:44:55)
I injured my toe recently and it made running very unpleasant. So that seems to be important. So how do you figure out for efficiency, for function, for aesthetics, how many joints to have, how many actuaries to have?
Marc Raibert
(00:45:09)
Well, it’s always a balance between wanting to get where you really want to get and what’s practical to do based on your resources or what you know and all that. So I mean, the whole idea of the pogo stick was to do a simplification. Obviously, it didn’t look like a human. I think a technical scientist could appreciate that we were capturing some of the things that are important in human locomotion without it looking like it, without having a knee, an ankle.

(00:45:40)
I’ll tell you the first sketch that Ben Brown made when we were talking about building this thing, was a very complicated thing with zillions of springs, lots of joints. It looked much more like a kangaroo or an ostrich or something like that. Things we were paying a lot of attention to at the time. So my job was to say, okay, well let’s do something simpler to get started and maybe we’ll get there at some point.
Lex Fridman
(00:46:10)
I just love the idea that you two were studying kangaroos and ostriches.
Marc Raibert
(00:46:14)
Oh yeah, we did. We filmed and digitized data from horses. I did a dissection of ostrich at one point, which has absolutely remarkable legs.
Lex Fridman
(00:46:27)
Dumb question. Do ostriches have a lot of musculature on the legs or no?
Marc Raibert
(00:46:33)
Most of it’s up in the feathers, but there’s a huge amount going on in the feathers, including a knee joint. The knee joint’s way up there. The thing that’s halfway down the leg that looks like a backwards knee is actually the ankle. The thing on the ground which looks like the foot is actually the toes. It’s an extended toe.
Lex Fridman
(00:46:51)
Fascinating.
Marc Raibert
(00:46:52)
But the basic morphology is the same in all these animals.
Lex Fridman
(00:46:58)
What do you think is the most beautiful movement of an animal? What animal you think is the coolest land animal? That’s cool because fish is pretty cool. Like the fish in crystal water, but legged locomotion.
Marc Raibert
(00:47:12)
The slow mos of cheetahs running are incredible. There’s so much back motion and grace, and of course they’re moving very fast. The animals running away from the cheetah are pretty exciting. The pronghorn, which they do this all four legs at once, jump called the prog, especially if there’s a group of them, to confuse whoever’s chasing them.
Lex Fridman
(00:47:39)
So they do a misdirection type of thing?
Marc Raibert
(00:47:41)
Yep. They do a misdirection thing. The front on views of the cheetahs running fast where the tail is whipping around to help in the turns to help stabilize in the turns. That’s pretty exciting.
Lex Fridman
(00:47:51)
Because they spend a lot of time in the air, I guess, as they’re running that fast.
Marc Raibert
(00:47:55)
But they also turn very fast.
Lex Fridman
(00:47:57)
Is that a tail thing or is do you have to have contact with ground?
Marc Raibert
(00:48:00)
Everything in the body is probably helping turn because they’re chasing something that’s trying to get away. That’s also zigzagging around. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say humans are pretty good too. You watch gymnasts, especially these days, they’re doing just incredible stuff.
Lex Fridman
(00:48:19)
Well, especially Olympic level gymnasts. See, but there could be cheetahs that are Olympic level. We might be watching the average cheetah versus there could be a really special cheetah that can do-
Marc Raibert
(00:48:31)
You’re right.
Lex Fridman
(00:48:32)
When did the knees first come into play in you building legged robots?
Marc Raibert
(00:48:37)
In BigDog. BigDog came first and then LittleDog was later. And there’s a big compromise there. Human knees have multiple muscles and you could argue that there’s… I mean, it’s a technical thing about negative work when you’re contracting a joint, but you’re pushing out, that’s negative work. And if you don’t have a place to store that, it can be very expensive to do negative work.

(00:49:08)
And in BigDog, there was no place to store negative work in the knees. But BigDog also had pogo stick springs down below. So part of the action was to comply in a bouncing motion. Later on in Spot, we took that out. As we got further and further away from the leg lab, we had more energy-driven controls.
Lex Fridman
(00:49:34)
Is there something to be said about needs that go forward versus backward?
Marc Raibert
(00:49:40)
Sure. There’s this idea called passive dynamics, which says that although you can use computers and actuators to make a motion, a mechanical system can make a motion just by itself if it gets stimulated the right way. So Tad McGeer, I think in the mid 80s, maybe it was in the late 80s, started to work on that.

(00:50:06)
And he made this legged system that could walk down an incline plane where the legs folded and unfolded and swung forward, do the whole walking motion where there was no computer. There were some adjustments to the mechanics so that there were dampers and springs in some places that helped the mechanical action happen. It was essentially a mechanical computer. And the interesting idea there is that it’s not all about the brain dictating to the body what the body should do. The body is a participant in the motion.
Lex Fridman
(00:50:42)
So a great design for a robot has a mechanical component where the movement is efficient even without a brain?
Marc Raibert
(00:50:49)
Yes.
Lex Fridman
(00:50:50)
How do you design that?
Marc Raibert
(00:50:52)
I think that these days most robots aren’t doing that. Most robots are basically using the computer to govern the motion. Now, the brain though is taking into account what the mechanical thing can do and how it’s going to behave. Otherwise, it would have to really forcefully move everything around all the time which probably some solutions do, but I think you end up with a more efficient and more graceful thing if you’re taking into account what the machine wants to do.

AI Institute

Lex Fridman
(00:51:23)
So this might be a good place to mention that you’re now leading up the Boston Dynamics AI Institute newly formed, which is focused more on designing the robots of the future. I think one of the things, maybe you can tell me the big vision for what’s going on, but one of the things is this idea that hardware still matters with organic design and so on. Maybe before that, can you zoom out and tell me what the vision is for the AI Institute?
Marc Raibert
(00:51:57)
I like to talk about intelligence having two parts, an athletic part and a cognitive part.
Marc Raibert
(00:52:00)
An athletic part and a cognitive part. I think Boston Dynamics, in my view, has set the standard for what athletic intelligence can be. And it has to do with all the things we’ve been talking about, the mechanical design, the real-time control, the energetics and that kind of stuff. But obviously, people have another kind of intelligence, and animals have another kind of intelligence. We can make a plan. Our meeting started at 9:30, I looked up on Google Maps how long it took to walk over here. It was 20 minutes, so I decided, okay, I’d leave my house at nine, which is what I did. Simple intelligence, but we use that kind of stuff all the time. It’s what we think of as going on in our heads.

(00:52:50)
And I think that’s in short supply for robots. Most robots are pretty dumb. As a result, it takes a lot of skilled people to program them to do everything they do, and it takes a long time. If robots are going to satisfy our dreams, they need to be smarter. So the AI Institute is designed to combine that physicality of the athletic side with the cognitive side.

(00:53:22)
For instance, we’re trying to make robots that can watch a human do a task, understand what it’s seeing, and then do the task itself. OJT, on-the-job training for robots as a paradigm. Now, that’s pretty hard, and it’s sort of science fiction, but our idea is to work on a longer timeframe and work on solving those kinds of problems. I have a whole list of things that are in that vein.
Lex Fridman
(00:53:53)
Maybe we can just take many of the things you mentioned, just take it as a tangent. First of all, athletic intelligence is a super cool term. And that really is intelligence. We humans take it for granted that we’re so good at walking and moving about the world.
Marc Raibert
(00:54:10)
And using our hands.
Lex Fridman
(00:54:10)
Using your hands.
Marc Raibert
(00:54:11)
The mechanics of interacting with all these [inaudible 00:54:15] these two things.
Lex Fridman
(00:54:18)
And you’ve never touched those things before.
Marc Raibert
(00:54:18)
Never touched… Well, I’ve touched ones like this.
Lex Fridman
(00:54:20)
[inaudible 00:54:20].
Marc Raibert
(00:54:20)
Look at all the things I can do, right? I can juggle them, I’m rotating it this way, I can rotate it without looking. I could fetch these things out my pocket and figure out which one was which and all that kind of stuff. And I don’t think we have much of a clue how all that works yet.

Athletic intelligence

Lex Fridman
(00:54:36)
I really like putting that under the banner of athletic intelligence. What are the big open problems in athletic intelligence? Boston Dynamics, with Spot, with Atlas, just have shown time and time again, pushed the limits of what we think is possible with robots. But where do we stand actually, if we zoom out. What are the big open problems on the athletic intelligence side?
Marc Raibert
(00:55:01)
I mean, one question you could ask, that isn’t my question, but are they commercially viable? Will they increase productivity? And I think we’re getting very close to that. I don’t think we’re quite there still. Most of the robotics companies, it’s a struggle. It’s really the lack of the cognitive side that probably is the biggest barrier at the moment, even for the physically successful robots.
Lex Fridman
(00:55:01)
Interesting.
Marc Raibert
(00:55:27)
But your question’s a good one. You can always do a thing that’s more efficient, lighter, more reliable. I’d say reliability. I know that Spot, they’ve been working very hard on getting the tail of the reliability curve up and they’ve made huge progress. There’s 1500 of them out there now, many of them being used in practical applications, day in and day out, where they have to work reliably. And it’s very exciting that they’ve done that. But it takes a huge effort to get that reliability in the robot.

(00:56:07)
There’s cost too, you’d like to get the cost down. Spots are still pretty expensive, and I don’t think that they have to be, but it takes a different kind of activity to do that. I think that Boston Dynamics is owned primarily by Hyundai now, and I think that the skills of Hyundai in making cars can be brought to bear in making robots that are less expensive and more reliable and those kinds of things.
Lex Fridman
(00:56:40)
On the cognitive side for the AI Institute, what’s the trade-off between moonshot projects for you and maybe incremental progress?
Marc Raibert
(00:56:50)
That’s a good question. I think we’re using the paradigm called stepping stones to moonshots. I don’t believe… That was in my original proposal for the institute, stepping stones to moonshots. I think if you go more than a year without seeing a tangible status report of where you are, which is the stepping stone, and it could be a simplification, you don’t necessarily have to solve all the problems of your target goal, even though your target goal is going to take several years, those stepping stone results give you feedback, give motivation, because usually there’s some success in there. So that’s the mantra we’ve been working on, and that’s pretty much how I’d say Boston Dynamics has worked, where you make progress and show it as you go. Show it to yourself, if not to the world.
Lex Fridman
(00:57:45)
What does success look like? What are some of the milestones you’re chasing?
Marc Raibert
(00:57:52)
Well, with Watch Understand Do, the project I mentioned before, we’ve broken that down into getting some progress with, what does meaningfully watching something mean? Breaking down an observation of a person doing something into the components, segmenting. You watch me do something, I’m going to pick up this thing and put it down here and stack this on it. Well, it’s not obvious if you just look at the raw data, what the sequence of acts are. It’s really a creative intelligent act for you to break that down into the pieces and understand them in a way, so you could say, “Okay, what skill do I need to accomplish each of those things?” So we’re working on the front end of that kind of a problem, where we observe and translate the, it may be video, it may be live, into a description of what we think is going on and then try and map that into skills to accomplish that. And we’ve been developing skills as well. So we have multiple stabs at the pieces of doing that.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:55)
That. And this is usually video of humans manipulating objects with their hands, kind of thing.
Marc Raibert
(00:59:00)
Mm-hmm. We’re starting out with bicycle repair, some simple bicycle repair tasks.
Lex Fridman
(00:59:05)
Oh no. That seems complicated, that seems really complicated.
Marc Raibert
(00:59:07)
Well, it is, but there’s some parts of it that aren’t, like putting the seat into the… You have a tube that goes inside of another tube and there’s a latch. That should be within range.
Lex Fridman
(00:59:19)
Is it possible to observe, to watch a video like this without having an explicit model of what a bicycle looks like?
Marc Raibert
(00:59:26)
I think it is, and I think that’s the kind of thing that people don’t recognize. Let me translate it to navigation. I think the basic paradigm for navigating a space is to get some kind of sensor that tells you where an obstacle is and what’s open, build a map and then go through the space. But if we were doing on the job training where I was giving you a task, I wouldn’t have to say anything about the room. We came in here, all we did is adjust the chair, but we didn’t say anything about the room and we could navigate it. So I think there’s opportunities to build that kind of navigation skill into robots and we’re hoping to be able to do that.
Lex Fridman
(01:00:07)
So operate successfully under a lot of uncertainty.
Marc Raibert
(01:00:10)
Yeah. And lack of specification.
Lex Fridman
(01:00:13)
Lack of specification.
Marc Raibert
(01:00:14)
I mean that’s what intelligence is, right? Dealing with… Understanding a situation even though it wasn’t explained.
Lex Fridman
(01:00:22)
So how big of a role does machine learning play in all of this? Is this more and more learning based?
Marc Raibert
(01:00:32)
Since Chat GPT, which is a year ago, basically, there’s a huge interest in that and a huge optimism about it. I think that there’s a lot of things that that kind of machine learning, now of course there’s lots of different kinds of machine learning, I think there’s a lot of interest and optimism about it. The facts on the ground are that doing physical things with physical robots is a little bit different than language, and the tokens don’t exist. Pixel values aren’t like words. But I think that there’s a lot that can be done there.

(01:01:12)
We have several people working on machine learning approaches. I don’t know if you know, but we opened an office in Zurich recently, and Marco Hutter, who’s one of the real leaders in reinforcement learning for robots, is the director of that office. He’s still half-time at ETH, the university there, where he has an unbelievably fantastic lab, and then he’s half-time leading, will be leading efforts in the Zurich office. So we have a healthy learning component.

(01:01:48)
But there’s part of me that still says, if you look out in the world at what the most impressive performances are, they’re still pretty much, I hate to use the word traditional, but that’s what everybody’s calling it, traditional controls, like model predictive control. The Atlas performances that you’ve seen are mostly model predictive control. They’ve started to do some learning stuff that’s really incredible. I don’t know if it’s all been shown yet, but you’ll see it over time. And then Marco has done some great stuff and others.
Lex Fridman
(01:02:21)
So especially for the athletic intelligence piece, the traditional approach seems to be the one that still performs the best.
Marc Raibert
(01:02:29)
I think we’re going to find a mating of the two and we’ll have the best of both worlds. And we’re working on that at the institute too.

Building a team

Lex Fridman
(01:02:36)
If I can talk to you about teams, you’ve built an incredible team of Boston Dynamics, before at MIT and CMU, at Boston Dynamics, and now at the AI Institute. And you said that there’s four components to a great team, technical fearlessness, diligence, intrepidness, and fun, technical fun. Can you explain each? Technical fearlessness, what do you mean by that?
Marc Raibert
(01:02:58)
Sure. Technical fearlessness means being willing to take on a problem that you don’t know how to solve, and study it, figure out an entry point, maybe a simplified version, or a simplified solution or something, learn from the stepping stone, and go back and eventually make a solution that meets your goals. I think that’s really important.
Lex Fridman
(01:03:28)
The fearlessness comes into play because some of it has never been done before?
Marc Raibert
(01:03:32)
Yeah, and you don’t know how to do it. There’s easier stuff to do in life. I mean, I don’t know, Watch Understand Do, it’s a mountain of a challenge.
Lex Fridman
(01:03:45)
So that’s the really big challenge you’re tackling now, can we watch humans at scale and have robots, by watching humans, become effective actors in the world?
Marc Raibert
(01:03:57)
Yeah. I mean we have others like that. We have one called Inspect Diagnose Fix. You call up the Maytag repairman… Okay, he’s the one who you don’t have to call. But you call up the dishwasher repair person, and they come to your house and they look at your machine. It’s already been actually figured out that something doesn’t work, but they have to examine it and figure out what’s wrong and then fix it. I think robots should be able to do that. Boston Dynamics already has Spot robots collecting data on machines, things like thermal data, reading the gauges, listening to them, getting sounds, and that data are used to determine whether they’re healthy or not. But the interpretation isn’t done by the robots yet, and certainly the fixing, the diagnosing and the fixing isn’t done yet, but I think it could be. That’s bringing the AI and combining it with the physical skills to do it.
Lex Fridman
(01:05:00)
And you’re referring to the fixing in the physical world. I can’t wait until they can fix the psychological problems of humans, and show up and talk, do therapy.
Marc Raibert
(01:05:08)
Yeah, that’s a different thing.
Lex Fridman
(01:05:10)
Yeah, it’s a different. Well, it’s all part of the same thing. Again, humanity. Maybe, maybe.
Marc Raibert
(01:05:17)
You mean convincing you it’s okay that the dishwasher’s broken, just do the [inaudible 01:05:21]. The marketing approach.
Lex Fridman
(01:05:23)
Yeah, exactly. Don’t sweat the small stuff. As opposed to fixing the dishwasher, it’ll convince you that it’s okay that the dishwasher’s broken. It’s a different approach. Diligence. Why is diligence important?

Videos

Marc Raibert
(01:05:39)
Well, if you want a real robot solution, it can’t be a very narrow solution that’s going to break at the first variation in what the robot does, or the environment if it wasn’t exactly as you expected it. So how do you get there? I think having an approach that leaves you unsatisfied until you’ve embraced the bigger problem is the diligence I’m talking about.

(01:06:08)
Again, I’ll point at Boston Dynamics, some of the videos that we had showing the engineer making it hard for the robot to do its task. Spot opening a door and then the guy gets there and pushes on the door so it doesn’t open the way it’s supposed to. Pulling on the rope that’s attached to the robot, so its navigation has been screwed up. We have one where the robot’s climbing stairs and an engineer is tugging on a rope that’s pulling it back down the stairs. That’s totally different than just the robot seeing the stairs, making a model, putting its feet carefully on each step. But that’s what probably robotics needs to succeed, and having that broader idea that you want to come with a robust solution is what I meant by diligence.
Lex Fridman
(01:06:54)
So really testing it in all conditions, perturbing the system in all kinds of ways, and as a result, creating some epic videos. The legendary-
Marc Raibert
(01:07:03)
The fun part, the hockey stick.
Lex Fridman
(01:07:04)
And then yes, tugging on Spot as it’s trying to open the door. I mean, it’s great testing, but it’s also, I don’t know, it’s just somehow extremely compelling demonstration of robotics in video form.
Marc Raibert
(01:07:21)
I learned something very early on with the first three-dimensional hopping machine. If you just show a video of it hopping, it’s a so what. If you show it falling over a couple of times, and you can see how easily and fast it falls over, then you appreciate what the robot’s doing when it’s doing its thing. So I think the reaction you just gave to the robot getting interfered with or tested while it’s going through the door, it’s showing you the scope of the solution.
Lex Fridman
(01:07:53)
The limits of the system, the challenges involved in failure. Showing both failure and success makes you appreciate the success, yeah. And then just the way the videos are done in Boston Dynamics are incredible. Because there’s no flash, there’s no extra production, it’s just raw testing of the robot.
Marc Raibert
(01:08:13)
Well, I was the final edit for most of the videos up until about three years ago, or four years ago. My theory of the video is no explanation. If they can’t see it, then it’s not the right thing. And if you do something worth showing, then let them see it. Don’t interfere with a bunch of titles that slow you down, or a bunch of distraction, just do something worth showing and then show it.
Lex Fridman
(01:08:47)
That’s brilliant.
Marc Raibert
(01:08:49)
It’s hard though for people to buy into that.
Lex Fridman
(01:08:53)
Yeah, I mean people always want to add more stuff, but the simplicity of just, “Do something worth showing and show it”, that’s brilliant. And don’t add extra stuff.
Marc Raibert
(01:09:03)
People have criticized, especially the Big Dog videos, where there’s a human driving the robot. And I understand the criticism now. At the time we wanted to just show, “Look, this thing’s using its legs to get up the hill.” So we focused on showing that, which was, we thought, the story. The fact that there was a human… So they were thinking about autonomy, whereas we were thinking about the mobility. So we’ve adjusted to a lot of things that we see that people care about, trying to be honest. We’ve always tried to be honest.
Lex Fridman
(01:09:38)
But also just show cool stuff in its raw form, the limits of the system. Let’s see the system be perturbed and be robust and resilient and all that kind of stuff. And dancing with some music. Intrepidness and fun. So, intrepid?
Marc Raibert
(01:09:57)
I mean, it might be the most important ingredient.
Lex Fridman
(01:10:00)
Sure.
Marc Raibert
(01:10:00)
And that is, robotics is hard, it’s not going to work right right away, so don’t be discouraged, is all it really means. Usually, when I talk about these things, I show videos, and I show a long string of outtakes. You have to have courage to be intrepid, when you work so hard to build your machine, and then you’re trying it, and it just doesn’t do what you thought it would do, what you want it to do, and you have to stick to it and keep trying.
Lex Fridman
(01:10:35)
I mean, we don’t often see that, the story behind Spot and Atlas. How many failures were there along the way to get a working Atlas, a working Spot, in the early days, even a working Big Dog?
Marc Raibert
(01:10:49)
There’s a video of Atlas climbing three big steps, and it’s very dynamic and it’s really exciting, real accomplishment. It took 109 tries and we have video of every one of them, we shoot everything. Again, we, this is at Boston Dynamics. So it took 109 tries, but once it did it had a high percentage of success. So it’s not like we’re cheating by just showing the best one, but we do show the evolved performance, not everything along the way. But everything along the way is informative. And it shows there’s stupid things that go wrong, like the robot, just when you say go and it collapses right there on the start, that doesn’t have to do with the steps. Or the perception didn’t work right, so you miss the target when you jump, or something breaks and there’s oil flying everywhere. But that’s fun.
Lex Fridman
(01:11:47)
Yeah. So the hardware failures and maybe some software-
Marc Raibert
(01:11:50)
Lots of control of evolution during that time. I think it took six weeks to get those 109 trials, because there was programming going on. It was actually robot learning, but there were human in the loop helping with the learning. So all data-driven.
Lex Fridman
(01:12:08)
Okay, and you always are learning from that failure.
Marc Raibert
(01:12:12)
Right.
Lex Fridman
(01:12:16)
How do you protect Atlas from not getting damaged from 109 attempts?
Marc Raibert
(01:12:24)
It’s remarkable. One of the accomplishments of Atlas is that the engineers have made a machine that’s robust enough that it can take that kind of testing, where it’s falling and stuff, and it doesn’t break every time. It still breaks, and part of the paradigm is to have people to repair stuff. You got to figure that in if you’re going to do this kind of work. I sometimes criticize the people who have their gold-plated thing and they keep it on the shelf and they’re afraid to use it. I don’t think you can make progress if you’re working that way. You need to be ready to have it break and go in there and fix it. It’s part of the thing. Plan your budget so you have spare parts and a crew and all that stuff.
Lex Fridman
(01:13:07)
If it falls 109 times, it’s okay. Wow. So, intrepid, truly. And that applies to Spot, that applies to all the other robot stuff.
Marc Raibert
(01:13:17)
Applies to everything. I think it applies to everything anybody tries to do that’s worth doing.
Lex Fridman
(01:13:22)
And especially with systems in the real world, right?

Engineering

Marc Raibert
(01:13:24)
Yeah.
Lex Fridman
(01:13:26)
So, fun.
Marc Raibert
(01:13:27)
Fun. Technical fun, I usually say.
Lex Fridman
(01:13:30)
Technical fun.
Marc Raibert
(01:13:31)
Have technical fun. I think that life as an engineer is really satisfying. To some degree it can be like crafts work, where you get to do things with your own hands, or your own design, or whatever your media is, and it’s very satisfying to be able to just do the work. Unlike a lot of people who have to do something that they don’t like doing, I think engineers typically get to do something that they like and there’s a lot of satisfaction from that. Then there’s, in many cases, you can have impact on the world somehow, because you’ve done something that other people admire, which is different from just the craft fun of building a thing. So that’s the second way that being an engineer is good.

(01:14:19)
I think the third thing is that if you’re lucky to be working in a team where you’re getting the benefit of other people’s skills that are helping you do your thing. None of us has all the skills needed to do most of these projects, and if you have a team where you’re working well with the others, that can be very satisfying.

(01:14:40)
Then if you’re an engineer, you also usually get paid. So you kind of get paid four times in my view of the world. So what could be better than that?
Lex Fridman
(01:14:49)
Get paid to have fun. What do you love about engineering? When you say engineering, what does that mean to you exactly? What is this big thing that we call engineering?
Marc Raibert
(01:15:00)
I think it’s both being a scientist, or getting to use science, at the same time as being an artist or a creator. Scientists only get to study what’s out there, and engineers get to make stuff that didn’t exist before. So it’s really, I think, a higher calling, even though I think most the public out there thinks science is top and engineering is somehow secondary, but I think it’s the other way around.
Lex Fridman
(01:15:26)
And at the cutting edge, I think, when you talk about robotics, there is a possibility to do art in that you do the first of its kind thing. Then there’s the production at scale, which is its own beautiful thing. But when you do the first new robot or the first new thing, that’s a possibility to create something totally new, that is art.
Marc Raibert
(01:15:48)
Bringing metal to life, or a machine to life, is fun. It was fun doing the dancing videos, where got a huge public response, and we’re going to do more. We’re doing some at the institute doing some at the institute and we’ll do more.
Lex Fridman
(01:16:05)
Well, that metal to life moment. I mean, to me that’s still magical. When inanimate objects comes to life, to me-
Marc Raibert
(01:16:15)
It’s cool.
Lex Fridman
(01:16:16)
… to this day, is still an incredible moment. That human intelligence can create systems that instill life, or whatever that is, into inanimate objects, it’s truly magical. Especially when it’s at the scale that humans can perceive and appreciate directly.
Marc Raibert
(01:16:37)
But I think, with going back to the pieces of that, you design a linkage that turns out to be half the weight and just as strong, that’s very satisfying.
Lex Fridman
(01:16:48)
That’s [inaudible 01:16:49], yeah.
Marc Raibert
(01:16:49)
There are people who do that and it’s a creative act.

Dancing robots

Lex Fridman
(01:16:54)
What to you is most beautiful about robotics? Sorry for the big romantic question.
Marc Raibert
(01:17:01)
I think having the robots move in a way that’s evocative of life is pretty exciting.
Lex Fridman
(01:17:08)
So the elegance of movement.
Marc Raibert
(01:17:09)
Yeah. Or if it’s a high performance act where it’s doing it faster, bigger than other robots. Usually we’re not doing it bigger, faster than people, but we’re getting there in a few narrow dimensions.
Lex Fridman
(01:17:22)
So faster, bigger, smoother, more elegant, more graceful.
Marc Raibert
(01:17:27)
I mean, I’d like to do dancing that starts… We’re nowhere near the dancing capabilities of a human. We’ve been having a ballerina in, who’s kind of a well-known ballerina, and she’s been programming the robot. We’ve been working on the tools that can make it so that she can use her way of talking, way of doing a choreography or something like that, more accessible, to get the robot to do things, and starting to produce some interesting stuff.
Lex Fridman
(01:17:58)
Well, we should mention that there is a choreography tool.
Marc Raibert
(01:18:00)
There is.
Lex Fridman
(01:18:02)
I guess-
Lex Fridman
(01:18:00)
Tool.
Marc Raibert
(01:18:00)
There is.
Lex Fridman
(01:18:02)
I mean I guess I saw versions of it, which is pretty cool. You can, at slices of time, control different parts at the high level, the movement of the robot, Spot and other-
Marc Raibert
(01:18:15)
We hope to take that forward and make it more tuned to how the dance world wants to talk, wants to communicate and get better performances. I mean, we’ve done a lot, but there’s still a lot possible. And I’d like to have performances where the robots are dancing with people. So right now almost everything that we’ve done on dancing is to a fixed time base. So once you press go, the robot does its thing and plays out its thing. It’s not listening, it’s not watching. But I think it should do those things.
Lex Fridman
(01:18:48)
I think I would love to see a professional ballerina, alone in her room with a robot, slowly teaching the robot. Just actually, the process of a clueless robot trying to figure out a small little piece of a dance. Because right now, Atlas and Spot have done perfect dancing to a beat and so on, to a degree, but the learning process of interacting with a human would be incredible to watch.
Marc Raibert
(01:19:19)
One of the cool things going on, you know that there’s a class at Brown University called Choreorobotics? Sidney Skybetter is a dancer, choreographer and he teamed up with Stefanie Tellex, who’s a computer science professor, and they taught this class and I think they have some graduate students helping teach it, where they have two spots and people come in. I think it’s 50/50 of computer science people and dance people, and they program performances that are very interesting. I show some of them sometimes when I give a talk.
Lex Fridman
(01:19:53)
And making that process of a human teaching the robot more efficient, more intuitive, maybe partial language, part movement. That’d be really fascinating because one of the things I’ve realized is humans communicate with movement a lot. It’s not just language, there’s a lot. There’s body language, there’s so many intricate little things. To watch a human and Spot communicate back and forth with movement, I mean there’s just so many wonderful possibilities there.
Marc Raibert
(01:20:28)
But it’s also a challenge. We get asked to have our robots perform with famous dancers and they have 200 degrees of freedom or something, every little ripple and thing, and they have all this head and neck and shoulders and stuff, and the robots mostly don’t have all that stuff and it’s a daunting challenge to not look physically stupid next to them. So we’ve pretty much avoided that performance, but we’ll get to it.
Lex Fridman
(01:21:04)
I think even with the limited degrees of freedom, we could still have some sass and flavor and so on. You can figure out your own thing even if you can’t-
Marc Raibert
(01:21:11)
And we can reverse things. If you watch a human do a robot animation, which is a dance style where you jerk around and you pop and lock and all that stuff, I think the robots could show up the humans by doing unstable oscillations and things that are faster than a person could. So that’s on my plan, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet.

Hiring

Lex Fridman
(01:21:39)
You mentioned about building teams and robotics teams and so on. How do you find great engineers? How do you hire great engineers?
Marc Raibert
(01:21:45)
Well, it’s a chicken and egg. If you have an environment where interesting engineering is going on, then engineers want to work there. And I think it took a long time to develop that at Boston Dynamics. In fact, when we started, although I had the experience of building things in the leg lab, both at CMU and at MIT, we weren’t that sophisticated an engineering thing compared to what Boston Dynamics is now, but it was our ambition to do that. And Sarcos was another robot company, so I always thought of us as being this much on the computing side, and this much on the hardware side, and they were this. And then over the years, I think we achieved the same or better levels of engineering.

(01:22:41)
Meanwhile, Sarcos got acquired and then they went through all changes and I don’t know exactly what their current status is. So it took many years, is part of the answer. I think you got to find people who love it. In the early days, we paid a little less so we only got people who were doing it because they really loved it. We also hired people who might not have professional degrees, people who were building bicycles and building kayaks. We have some people who come from the maker world, and that’s really important for the work we do, to have that be part of the mix.
Lex Fridman
(01:23:20)
Whatever that is. Whatever the magic ingredient that makes a great builder, maker. That’s the big part of it.
Marc Raibert
(01:23:26)
People who repaired their cars or motorcycles or whatever in their garages when they were kids.
Lex Fridman
(01:23:35)
The robotics students, grad students, and just roboticists that I know and I hang out with, there’s a endless energy and they’re just happy. Say, I compare another group of people that are alike that are people that skydive professionally. There’s just excitement and general energy that I think probably has to do with the fact that they’re just constantly, first of all, fail a lot. And then the joy of building a thing that you eventually works.
Marc Raibert
(01:24:06)
Talking about being happy, there used to be a time when I was doing the machine shop work myself back in those JPL and Caltech days, when, if I came home smelling like the machine shop because it’s an oily place, my wife would say, “You had a good day today.” Because she could tell that that’s where I’d been.
Lex Fridman
(01:24:26)
You’ve actually built something. You’ve done something in the physical world. And probably the videos help show off what robotics is.
Marc Raibert
(01:24:36)
At Boston Dynamics, it put us on the map. I remember interviewing some sales guy and he was from a company and he said, “Well, no one’s ever heard of my company but we have really good products. You guys, everybody knows who you are but you don’t have any products at all.” Which was true, and we thank YouTube for that. YouTube came, we caught the YouTube wave and it had a huge impact on our company.
Lex Fridman
(01:25:06)
I mean, it’s a big impact not just on your company, but on robotics in general and helping people understand and inspire what is possible with robots, and inspire imagination, fear and everything. The full spectrum of human emotion was aroused, which is great for the entirety of humanity, and also, it’s probably inspiring for young people that want to get into AI and robotics. Let me ask you about some competitors. You’ve been a complimentary of Elon and Tesla’s work on Optimus robot with their humanoid robot. What do you think of their efforts there with the humanoid robot?

Optimus robot

Marc Raibert
(01:25:48)
I really admire Elon as a technologist. I think that what he did with Tesla, it was just totally mind-boggling that he could go from this totally niche area that less than 1% of anybody seemed to be interested to making it, so that essentially every car company in the world is trying to do what he’s done. So you got to give it to him. Then look at SpaceX, he’s basically replaced NASA. That might be a little exaggeration, but not by much.

(01:26:24)
So you got to admire the guy and I wouldn’t count him out for anything. I don’t think Optimus today is where Atlas is, for instance. I don’t know, it’s a little hard to compare them to the other companies. I visited Figure. I think they’re doing well and they have a good team. I’ve visited Apptronik and I think they have a good team and they’re doing well. But Elon has a lot of resources, he has a lot of ambition. I like to take some credit for his ambition. I think if I read between the lines, it’s hard not to think that him seeing what Atlas is doing is a little bit of an inspiration. I hope so.
Lex Fridman
(01:27:13)
Do you think Atlas and Optimus will hang out at some point?
Marc Raibert
(01:27:17)
I would love to host that. Now that I’m not at Boston Dynamics, I’m not officially connected, I’m on the board but I’m not officially connected, I would love to host a-
Lex Fridman
(01:27:27)
A robot meetups?
Marc Raibert
(01:27:28)
… a wrote up meetup, yeah.
Lex Fridman
(01:27:31)
Does the AI Institute work with Spots and Atlas? Is it focused on Spots mostly right now as a platform?
Marc Raibert
(01:27:37)
We have a bunch of different robots. We bought everything we could buy. So we have Spots. I think we have a good size fleet of them. I don’t know how many it is, but a good size fleet. We have a couple of ANYmal robots. ANYmal is a company founded by Marco Hutter, even though he’s not that involved anymore, but we have a couple of those. We have a bunch of arms like Franka’s and USRobotics. Because even though we have ambitions to build stuff and we are starting to build stuff, day one, getting off the ground, we just bought stuff.
Lex Fridman
(01:28:14)
I love this robot playground you’ve built.
Marc Raibert
(01:28:17)
You can come over and take a look if you want.
Lex Fridman
(01:28:19)
That’s great. So it’s all these kinds of robots, legged, arms.
Marc Raibert
(01:28:24)
Well, there’s some areas that feel like a playground, but it’s not like they’re all frolic together.
Lex Fridman
(01:28:31)
Again, maybe you’ll arrange a robot meetup. But in general, what’s your view on competition in this space for especially humanoid and legged robots? Are you excited by the competition or the friendly competition?
Marc Raibert
(01:28:51)
I don’t think about competition that much. I’m not a commercial guy. I think for the many years I was at Boston Dynamics, we didn’t think about competition. We were just doing our thing there. It wasn’t like there were products out there that we were competing with. Maybe there was some competition for DARPA funding, which we got a lot of, got very good at getting. But even there, in a couple of cases where we might’ve competed, we ended up just being the robot provider, that is for the LittleDog program, we just made the robots. We didn’t participate as developers except for developing the robot. And in the DARPA robotics challenge, we didn’t compete. We provided the robots.

(01:29:42)
In the AI world now, now that we’re working on cognitive stuff, it feels much more a competition. The entry requirements in terms of computing hardware and the skills of the team and hiring talent, it’s a much tougher place. So I think much more about competition now on the cognitive side. On the physical side, it doesn’t feel it’s that much about competition yet. Obviously, with 10 humanoid companies out there, 10 or 12, I mean there’s probably others that I don’t know about, they’re definitely in competition, will be in competition.
Lex Fridman
(01:30:22)
How much room is there for a quadruped and especially a humanoid robot to become cheaper? So cutting costs, and how low can you go? And how much of it is just mass production? So questions of how to produce versus engineering innovation, how to simplify it.
Marc Raibert
(01:30:47)
I think there’s a huge way to go. I don’t think we’ve seen the bottom of it, the bottom in terms of its lower prices. I think you should be totally optimistic that, at asymptote, things don’t have to be anything as expensive as they are now. Back to competition, I wanted to say one thing. I think in the quadruped space, having other people selling quadruped’s is a great thing for Boston Dynamics because I believe the question in the user’s minds is, “Which quadruped do I want?” It’s not, “Do I want a quadruped?” “Can a quadruped do my job?” It’s much more like that, which is a great place for it to be. Then you’re just doing the things you normally do to make your product better and compete, selling and all that stuff. And that’ll be the way it is with humanoids at some point.
Lex Fridman
(01:31:37)
Well, there’s a lot of humanoids and you’re just not even… It’s like iPhone versus Android and people are just buying both and it’s just, you’re not really-
Marc Raibert
(01:31:48)
You’re creating the category or the category is happening. I mean right now, the use cases, that’s the key thing. Having realistic use cases that are moneymaking in robotics is a big challenge. There’s the warehouse use case. That’s probably the only thing that makes anybody any money in robotics at this point.
Lex Fridman
(01:32:10)
There’s got to be a moment-
Marc Raibert
(01:32:11)
There’s old-fashioned robots. I mean, there’s fixed arms doing manufacturing. I don’t want to say that they’re not making money.
Lex Fridman
(01:32:17)
… Industrial robotics, yes. But there’s got to be a moment when social robotics starts making real money. Meaning a Spot type robot in the home and there’s tens of millions of them in the home and they’re, I don’t know, how many dogs there are in the United States as pets.
Marc Raibert
(01:32:34)
Many.
Lex Fridman
(01:32:35)
It feels there’s something we love about having a intelligent companion with us that remembers us, that’s excited to see us. All that stuff.
Marc Raibert
(01:32:44)
But it’s also true that the companies making those things, there’ve been a lot of failures in recent times. There’s that one year when I think three of them went under. So it’s not that easy to do that. Getting performance, safety and cost all to be where they need to be at the same time, that’s hard.
Lex Fridman
(01:33:07)
But also some of it is, like you say, you can have a product but people might not be aware of it. So also part of it is the videos or however you connect with the public, the culture and create the category. Make people realize this is the thing you want. There’s a lot of negative perceptions you can have. Do you really want a system with the camera in your home walking around? If it’s presented correctly and if there’s the right boundaries around it and you understand how it works and so on, a lot of people would want to. And if they don’t, they might be suspicious of it. So that’s an important one. We all use smartphones and that has a camera that’s looking at us.
Marc Raibert
(01:33:49)
It has two or three or four.
Lex Fridman
(01:33:50)
And it’s listening. Very few people are suspicious about it. They take it for granted and so on. And I think robots would be the same way.
Marc Raibert
(01:34:00)
I agree.

Future of robotics

Lex Fridman
(01:34:02)
So as you work on the cognitive aspect of these robots, do you think we’ll ever get to human level or superhuman level intelligence? There’s been a lot of conversations about this recently, given the rapid development in large language models.
Marc Raibert
(01:34:21)
I think that intelligence is a lot of different things and I think some things, computers are already smarter than people, and some things they’re not even close. And I think you’d need a menu of detailed categories to come up with that. But I also think that the conversation that seems to be happening about AGI’s puzzles me. So I ask you a question, do you think there’s anybody smarter than you in the world?
Lex Fridman
(01:34:55)
Absolutely, yes.
Marc Raibert
(01:34:57)
Do you find that threatening?
Lex Fridman
(01:34:58)
No.
Marc Raibert
(01:34:59)
So I don’t understand, even if computers were smarter than people, why we should assume that that’s a threat, especially since they could easily be smarter but still available to us or under our control, which is basically how computers generally are.
Lex Fridman
(01:35:17)
I think the fear is that they would be 10x or 100x smarter and operating under different morals and ethical codes than humans naturally do, and so almost become misaligned in unintended ways and therefore harm humans in ways we just can’t predict. And even if we program them to do a thing, on the way of doing that thing, they would cause a lot of harm. And when they’re 100 times, 1,000 times, 10,000 times smarter than us, we won’t be able to stop it or we won’t be able to even see the harm as it’s happening until it’s too late. That stuff. So you can construct all possible trajectories of how the world ends because of super intelligent systems.
Marc Raibert
(01:36:05)
It’s a little bit like that line in the Oppenheimer movie where they contemplate whether the first time they set off a reaction, all matter on earth is going to go up. I don’t remember what the verb they used was for the chain reaction. I guess it’s possible, but I personally don’t think it’s worth worrying about that. I think that it’s balancing opportunities and risk. I think if you take any technology, there’s opportunity and risk. I’ll point at the car. They pollute and about what? 1.25 million people get killed every year around the world because of them. Despite that, I think they’re a boon to humankind, they’re very useful, many of us love them and those technical problems can be solved. I think they’re becoming safer. I think they’re becoming less polluting, at least some of them are. And every technology you can name has a story like that in my opinion.
Lex Fridman
(01:37:20)
What’s the story behind the Hawaiian shirt? Is it a fashion statement, a philosophical statement? Is it just a statement of rebellion? Engineering statement?
Marc Raibert
(01:37:31)
It was born of me being a contrarian.
Lex Fridman
(01:37:35)
It’s a symbol.
Marc Raibert
(01:37:36)
Someone told me once that I was wearing one when I only had one or two and they said, “Those things are so old-fashioned. You can’t wear that, Marc.” And I stopped wearing them for about a week and then I said, “I’m not going to let them tell me what to do.” And so every day since, pretty much.
Lex Fridman
(01:37:55)
So it’s a symbol.
Marc Raibert
(01:37:56)
That was years ago. That was 20 years ago. 15 years ago probably.
Lex Fridman
(01:38:00)
That says something about your personality. That’s great.
Marc Raibert
(01:38:04)
It took me a while to realize that I was a contrarian, but it can be a useful tool.
Lex Fridman
(01:38:10)
Have you had people tell you on the robotics side that, “I don’t think you could do this”? A negative motivation?
Marc Raibert
(01:38:21)
I’d rather talk about, when we were doing a lot of DARPA work, there was a Marine, Ed Tovar, who’s still around. What he would always say is when someone would say, “You can’t do that.” He’d say, “Why not?” And it’s a great question. I ask all the time when I’m thinking, “We’re not going to do that nice thing.” “Why not?” And I give him credit for opening my eyes to resisting that.

Advice for young people

Lex Fridman
(01:38:50)
So the Hawaiian shirt is almost a symbol of “why not?” Okay. What advice would you give to young folks that are trying to figure out what they want to do with their life? How to have a life they can be proud of? How they can have a career they can be proud of?
Marc Raibert
(01:39:06)
When I was teaching at MIT, for a while, I had undergraduate advisees where people would have to meet with me once a semester or something and they frequently would ask what they should do. And I think the advice I used to give was something like, “Well, if you had no constraints on you, no resource constraints, no opportunity constraints and no skill constraints, what could you imagine doing?” And I said, “Well, start there and see how close you can get to what’s realistic for how close you can get.” The other version of that is try and figure out what you want to do and do that. A lot of people think that they’re in a channel and there’s only limited opportunities, but it’s usually wider than they think.
Lex Fridman
(01:39:57)
The opportunities really are limitless. But at the same time, you want to pick a thing and it’s the diligence and really, really pursue it. And really pursue it. Because sometimes the really special stuff happens after years of pursuit.
Marc Raibert
(01:40:18)
Yeah. Oh, absolutely. It can take a while.
Lex Fridman
(01:40:21)
I mean, you’ve been doing this for 40 plus years.
Marc Raibert
(01:40:24)
Some people think I’m in a rut. And in fact, some of the inspiration for the AI Institute is to say, “I’ve been working on locomotion for however many years it was, let’s do something else.” And it’s a really fascinating and interesting challenge.
Lex Fridman
(01:40:44)
And you’re hoping to show it off also in the same way it has been done with Boston Dynamics?
Marc Raibert
(01:40:48)
Just about to start showing some stuff off. I hope we have a YouTube channel. I mean one of the challenges is, it’s one thing to show athletic skills on YouTube. Showing cognitive function is a lot harder, and I haven’t quite figured out yet how that’s going to work.
Lex Fridman
(01:41:06)
There might be a way.
Marc Raibert
(01:41:07)
There’s a way.
Lex Fridman
(01:41:08)
There’s a way.
Marc Raibert
(01:41:09)
Why not?
Lex Fridman
(01:41:10)
I also do think sucking at a task is also compelling. The incremental improvement. A robot being really terrible at a task and then slowly becoming better. Even in athletic intelligence, honestly. Learning to walk and falling and slowly figuring that out, I think there’s something extremely compelling about that. We like flaws, especially with the cognitive task. It’s okay to be clumsy. It’s okay to be confused and a little silly and all that stuff. It feels like in that space is where we can-
Marc Raibert
(01:41:45)
There’s charm.
Lex Fridman
(01:41:46)
… There’s charm and there’s something inspiring about a robot sucking and then becoming less terrible slowly at a task.
Marc Raibert
(01:41:57)
No, I think you’re right.
Lex Fridman
(01:41:58)
That reveals something about ourselves. Ultimately, that’s what’s one of the coolest things about robots, is it’s a mirror about what makes humans special. Just by watching how hard it is to make a robot do the things that humans do. You realize how special we are. What do you think is the meaning of this whole thing? Why are we here? Marc, do you ever ask about the big questions as you try to create these humanoid, human-like intelligence systems?
Marc Raibert
(01:42:32)
I don’t know. I think you have to have fun while you’re here. That’s about all I know. It would be a waste not to.
Lex Fridman
(01:42:40)
The ride is pretty short, so might as well have fun. Marc, I’m a huge fan of yours. It’s a huge honor that you would talk with me. This is really amazing and your work for many decades has been amazing and I can’t wait to see what you do at the AI Institute. I’m going to be waiting impatiently for the videos and the demos and the next robot meetup for maybe Atlas and Optimus to hang out.
Marc Raibert
(01:43:07)
I would love to do that. That would be fun.
Lex Fridman
(01:43:09)
Thank you so much for talking.
Marc Raibert
(01:43:10)
Thank you. It was fun talking to you.
Lex Fridman
(01:43:13)
Thanks for listening to this conversation with Marc Raibert. To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now let me leave you with some words from Arthur C. Clark. “Whether we’re based on carbon or on silken makes no fundamental difference. We should each be treated with appropriate respect.” Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.

Transcript for Omar Suleiman: Palestine, Gaza, Oct 7, Israel, Resistance, Faith & Islam | Lex Fridman Podcast #411

This is a transcript of Lex Fridman Podcast #411 with Omar Suleiman.
The timestamps in the transcript are clickable links that take you directly to that point in
the main video. Please note that the transcript is human generated, and may have errors.
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Table of Contents

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Click link to jump approximately to that part in the transcript: 

Introduction

Omar Suleiman
(00:00:00)
You always know when you live in Gaza that it’s only a matter of time before the next bombs drop. You know if you’re in Gaza that you are waiting for your death. People dream about going out in the world and pursuing education. People dream about going out in the world and pursuing economic opportunity. In Gaza, your idea of opportunity is an opportunity to see the next year. That has been the case. And so, when we talk about this not existing in a vacuum, if people only hear about Gaza on October 7th, that is a major part of the problem. And that is, again, part of the problem of our ignorance and our apathy. Why is it that the plight of the people of Gaza is not brought up until an attack happens on Israel?
Lex Fridman
(00:00:59)
The following is a conversation with Imam Dr. Omar Suleiman, his second time on the podcast. He is a Palestinian American, a Muslim scholar, a civil rights leader, president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, and is one of the most influential Muslims in the world. Our previous conversation was focused on Islam. This time the focus was on Gaza and Palestine.
(00:01:26)
This is the Lex Fridman Podcast. To support it, please check out our sponsors in the description.

Oct 7

(00:01:31)
And now, dear friends, here’s Omar Suleiman. What did you think, feel, and pray for in the days that followed October 7th?
Omar Suleiman
(00:01:43)
I think the first feeling was that there’s going to be a lot of death and destruction in Gaza as a result. We always kind of see this where one Israeli casualty leads to hundreds of Palestinian casualties, right? So, it’s a pretty familiar cycle in some ways where there are daily transgressions against Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza, the checkpoints, the aggression on Mosque Al-Aqsa, the settlements expanding, the stories of Palestinian death. And then you have rockets fired from Gaza, and that’s when the Western press catches up and starts to cover it. Israel responds with Hellfire missiles, white phosphorus bombs, and the casualties are wildly disproportionate. And so, I think that I wasn’t surprised. I prayed for the people that I knew were going to bear the brunt of this outbreak, but the outbreak was predictable.
Lex Fridman
(00:02:54)
You wrote a statement on October 9th. I was hoping to read it, if it’s okay?
Omar Suleiman
(00:03:01)
Yeah, go ahead.
Lex Fridman
(00:03:02)
Our Palestinian casualties are always your footnotes. The daily humiliation of occupation ignored, the aggression by settlers and soldiers alike on holy sites and souls, the annihilation of entire families that follows, the devastation of whatever scraps remain in the open air prison of Gaza, unsustainable and inhumane. So, if you’re waking up to a sudden interest in the region and want to know what’s been happening, dig a bit deeper than two weeks and try to read beyond the headlines of a media that has been dehumanizing us for decades.
Omar Suleiman
(00:03:39)
Again, this was not surprising. This was very predictable. If you’ve been watching what’s been unfolding before October 7th, 2021, Human Rights Watch puts out the report, Threshold reached, Israel is an apartheid state. Amnesty International 2022, the crime of apartheid, showing how all of the legal determinations of apartheid have been reached, the occupations only getting more aggressive.
(00:04:10)
Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American journalist, is shot dead in 2022 in front of the world. The United States says initially that if it is shown that Israel was complicit or that Israel carried out the execution, then there will be consequences. Of course, once it was shown that Israel was indeed responsible for the bullet that killed Shireen Abu Akleh, the United States did absolutely nothing. Shireen’s funeral was attacked. The pallbearers were beaten. Her casket almost fell. And again, the world is watching.
(00:04:46)
The aggression against worshipers in Al-Aqsa is getting worse. You have the Flag March, the Jerusalem Flag March where extremist settlers are let loose and wild on Palestinians by the thousands, chanting things like, “Muhammad is dead. We’re going to murder you, Arabs.” All with the protection of the state with Israeli soldiers. And throughout this time, it’s like something bad is going to happen.
(00:05:15)
And then 2023 comes along. You had 13,000 settler units in 2023. A plan of 13,000 settler units, the most in the history of the occupation, the most racist and extremist government, Israeli government, that you have ever had. And people don’t realize that in 2023 alone, over 600 Palestinians had already been killed. It just doesn’t make Western headlines. And so, if you wonder why the American public sees this so much differently than the rest of the world, it’s because American media shows the American public something so much different than what the rest of the world has shown. And so, this was a pressure cooker. This was going to explode. It is extremely predictable. You’ve given people absolutely no hope. And so, I think that as we’re watching that, it’s important for us to actually interrogate the ignorance that people have of the Palestinian plight, the ignorance of the root causes of this violence, the ignorance of the occupation. And also, ask yourselves, why is it that Israel can violate every single international law on the books, have all these determinations, and the United States keeps on issuing these inconsequential statements while also, at the same time, funding these aggressions?
(00:06:55)
So, it’s like, “Stop the settler violence.” The United States will issue statement after statements, “Stop the settler violence. Stop the incursions on Mosque Al-Aqsa. Stop violating the people in Jerusalem. Stop trying to wipe out the Palestinian people. Stop openly saying that there is no two-state solution, that we will never allow a Palestinian state to be established.” But at the same time, “Here’s your $3 billion check.” And if the United Nations issues any sort of resolution against Israel, or if any international body tries to hold Israel accountable, the United States stands in the way of any accountability. It’s important for us to ask why?
(00:07:36)
And so, I always tell people, “Read beyond the headlines.” Even now with the backdrop of a genocide, over 30,000 people have been killed. If you open the front page of most American mainstream sites, you will see stories about the hostages, the Israeli hostages. You will see stories about October 7th, but October 8th is missing. October 9th is missing. October 10th is missing. A hundred days of genocide are missing. And you’ll barely have a story that shows up every once in a while that is still very much so controlled by the Israeli propaganda machine, because while Israel kills Palestinian journalists, it also makes sure that American journalists are only able to tell a certain story. They’re only able to see Gaza from a certain perspective. They’re only able to speak about Gaza from a certain perspective.
(00:08:28)
And this is well-documented, that they have to review their media tapes with Israel before they can publicize them. And so, this is state propaganda at this point. The mainstream media and the United States government are in lockstep, telling a very skewed story. And that is leading to a greater sense of frustration. And I think the American public has been wronged as well by not knowing what’s happening.
Lex Fridman
(00:08:56)
You mentioned settlements. So, to you, this is bigger than Gaza. It is the West Bank. It is the Palestinian people broadly.
Omar Suleiman
(00:09:05)
Absolutely. You can’t disconnect Gaza from Palestine. You can’t disconnect the West Bank from Palestine. You can’t disconnect Jerusalem from Palestine. And you can’t disconnect the very human story from the political plight.
(00:09:19)
You interviewed Mohammed El-Kurd, met him. What did the world do when it saw the images of the Kurd household being taken over by a guy from Brooklyn or Long Island who just shows up and lays claim to their home? What did the world do when American settlers suddenly decided they could walk into historic Palestinian homes and throw people out of their homes? What did the world do? And so, yes, this is very much so connected to the broader issue of Palestinian existence.
(00:09:55)
If you realize here, we are erased in peace and we are erased in war. In peace, it’s the Abraham Accords, agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors, which is supposedly to solve the Palestinian problem. The Palestinians are absent from their own fate, from discussions about their own fate. In war, it’s the Israel-Hamas war. It’s Israel and Gaza. Where are the Palestinian people? The millions of Palestinian people that have either been removed from their land or are being tormented on their land, where are they in this discussion?

Palestinian diaspora

Lex Fridman
(00:10:32)
What are the Palestinians in the diaspora feeling?
Omar Suleiman
(00:10:38)
I think deeply frustrated, a great sense of anger, sadness. Every single Palestinian right now knows someone that’s been killed. Every single Palestinian is a part of a story of displacement or destruction. Every single Palestinian has a relative that’s either missing a limb or a loved one. Every single Palestinian in the world is traumatized by this. And in some ways, being outside of Palestine, being away from it all hurts even more because you see your people being killed, and starved, and brutalized, and slaughtered, and you can’t do anything about it. And the people around you are justifying that slaughter.
(00:11:27)
If you turn on a TV or if you open a mainstream news site, these sites are justifying your slaughter and people are being killed over there because they look like me, because they’re Palestinian like I’m Palestinian. And so, we’re watching this in diaspora with agony. We can’t go, we can’t heal our loved ones. We can’t comfort the people that are there. I recently spoke to a doctor who’s lost 75 relatives, 75 relatives in Gaza, and he’s a medical doctor. And all he wants to do is get in there and just use his medical expertise to help his people and he can’t.
(00:12:10)
And so, we’re watching it from afar, but our hearts are there. They are in the buildings that are being destroyed. They’re in the hospitals that are being bombed. They are there and they’re with the people.
Lex Fridman
(00:12:23)
You’re somebody who’s always rushed into the midst of a crisis. So, what does it feel like on a personal level to not be able to do that here, to go to Gaza to help?
Omar Suleiman
(00:12:37)
Yeah, it’s really hard. I mean, when any group of people are killed, my instinct, and I think a lot of people is to go there to help, whether it’s a natural disaster or especially after an incident of terror, wherever it is. It’s rush there and do the best that you can to help people get through it. So, it’s been extremely hard to watch this from afar and feel like I can’t do anything about it. And so, that’s why, instead, I think that most of us are driven to continue to be the voice of the voiceless.
(00:13:19)
I always say that if they’ve made them faceless, they can’t make us voiceless. They have reduced our casualties in Palestine to a number. The number is hundreds a day, over 30,000 people. We’re averaging 10,000 people a month. The fact that they’ve been turned into faceless numbers with no stories, with no humanity, makes it that much more important for us to tell their stories here. And to remind the world that you’ve lost your humanity if you can watch this unfold and not even have the decency to call for a ceasefire. I mean, that’s where we’ve reached. That’s how low it is right now. Calling for a ceasefire has now become radical.
(00:14:07)
So, we have to remind the world that if you’re okay with the demolition of an entire town, or a city, or whatever it is that you want to call Gaza because it wasn’t always the Gaza Strip, but if you’re okay with this and you’re okay with this casualty count every single day, it’s not just them who are being killed; it’s your hearts that are dying. And I think that when I look back to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and I mentioned this, he wrote about Vietnam. He said that if America was to succumb to its spiritual death, the autopsy would read Vietnam. I would say that it would read Gaza now.

Wael Al-Dahdouh

Lex Fridman
(00:14:48)
Speaking of the people, the faces, the voices, one of the people you’ve talked about, you’ve posted about, you’ve written about is Wael Al-Dahdouh, him being hospitalized. He’s a Palestinian journalist and the bureau chief of Al Jazeera in Gaza City. What can you tell me about this man?
Omar Suleiman
(00:15:07)
If Wael Al-Dahdouh wasn’t Palestinian, he’d be on the cover of Time Magazine right now. He would be the most celebrated journalist in the world. Wael Al-Dahdouh is from Gaza. He has been in Israeli prisons. He has been under Israeli airstrikes. He has seen the worst of the occupation before. He’s seen the worst of the genocide while on TV. I mean, and this is insane when you think about it. We have over a hundred journalists now, that’s more than any conflict in history, that have been killed. And there is sufficient evidence by international watchdogs that this is intentional. That journalists have been killed intentionally, but then their families.
(00:15:50)
Wael was reporting on TV when an airstrike hits his wife, two kids and a grandchild. He goes to the scene. And he said this, “You never expect as a journalist to be the subject of the story.” Suddenly, the camera’s on him mourning over his dead wife and kids and grandkid, and he even says it in Arabic. He says, “They’re taking it out on our children. They’re taking it out on our children.” I’ve heard this from multiple people that have had relatives targeted that, “I wish it was me instead.” He gets back on camera the same day because he feels a responsibility to continue to cover the lives of the people of Gaza. He understands that his story, as devastating as it is, is not unique in regards to the people of Gaza, that there are many people whose families have been killed in airstrikes. All two million people have been traumatized in some way. And so, he gets back on camera, tells the story again, and then he is targeted himself, his arm struck. His cameraman, Samer Abudaqa, dies in front of him. He bleeds out. Wael watches him bleed out for hours. And while any aid workers try to reach them in the building that they were in, snipers would shoot all of those that were rushing to Samer.
(00:17:24)
So, he watches his cameraman and one of his best friends bleed out to death. Wael goes to the hospital. His arm is wrapped up, gets treatment. He’s back on camera the next day. A few weeks later, another child is killed again with his friend in a car. So, this was a targeted airstrike. His son is driving. And his son and his best friend are hit in an airstrike. Wael leads the funeral prayer, is back on camera again, and speaks with such dignity, with such compassion. One of the things that always gets to me, as a Palestinian and as a Muslim too, is that we are portrayed to be these beasts and savages. Tell me a man that would be put through what Wael was put through and still stand on that pulpit and in front of the world with such dignity, with such grace. He continues to tell the story. Wael has become a hero to many of us, and he would be a hero in a world that wasn’t anti-Palestinian. And unfortunately, Wael has not only lost his family, he’s not only lost much of his own existence, but Wael is part of the greater story of erasure. So, even though he’s telling the story of the people of Gaza and he is the story of the people of Gaza, most people will never learn about Wael Al-Dahdouh.
Lex Fridman
(00:19:01)
You have posted videos and written about what is happening in Gaza since October 7th. What has been happening there, the individual stories and the broader impact on the two million people there?
Omar Suleiman
(00:19:12)
Gaza has been described as the world’s largest open air prison, unemployment, blockaded from all directions, no airport, regular added restrictions placed even on their ability to fish. So, every aspect of Gazan life has been under occupation. I would argue that it’s an injustice to even call it an open air prison because inmates are not bombed in prisons routinely by the most sophisticated weapons in the world. Regular bombardment of Gaza, every single person in Gaza has lived through multiple rounds of bombardment. It is deeply distressing.
(00:20:02)
I remember in 2021, there was an image that I will never forget of children having to go back to school after the bombardment of 2021. And next to them, they would have the empty chairs and the posters of the child that used to sit in that chair. I think what encapsulates it most for me, an image that I grew up with was the image of Muhammad al-Durrah, who was in his father’s lap over 20 years ago, and his father was begging for Israel to spare his child. And Muhammad was murdered in his lap. And you know what happened these last rounds? His other kids were murdered. So, Muhammad’s brothers were murdered and his father’s been on the run.
(00:20:53)
Every single person in Gaza has witnessed multiple wars, has witnessed the greatest suffocation of occupation, has even had their diets restricted, and has suffered under Israel state policy, which is called mowing the lawn. And everyone should look this up. This is what Israeli ministers refer to as routine bombardment of Gaza, mowing the lawn, which shows you that before they called us animals, they considered us insects. And unfortunately, the casualty counts get higher and higher every time, and people become more and more desperate, more and more helpless.
(00:21:31)
Gaza has been, unfortunately, the worst manifestation of anti-Palestinian bigotry. I mean, 60% of the population is a refugee population. What that means, and people do need to understand this, is that people move to Gaza from other parts of occupied territory to find refuge and were practically living on top of each other. There are people that are in the Gaza Strip that know that they had homes right beyond that apartheid wall and those homes were stolen from them, and they can’t even enter that territory anymore.
(00:22:10)
And they know that on the other side of that wall, there’s life. On the other side of that wall, there’s opportunity. On the other side of that wall, you have a passport, you have an airport, you have the ability to travel, you have the ability to export and import, you can dream. But behind that wall, you are to live until the next airstrike. You are to live until Israel mows the lawn again and hope that you’re not part of the grass. That’s what Gaza has been all of these years.
Lex Fridman
(00:22:38)
So, pragmatically and psychologically, it’s very difficult to flourish when you’re just waiting for more bombardment.
Omar Suleiman
(00:22:45)
Because you know that it’s around the corner. You always know when you live in Gaza that it’s only a matter of time before the next bombs drop. You know if you’re in Gaza that you are waiting for your death. People dream about going out in the world and pursuing education. People dream about going out in the world and pursuing economic opportunity. In Gaza, your idea of opportunity is an opportunity to see the next year. That has been the case. And so, when we talk about this not existing in a vacuum, if people only hear about Gaza on October 7th, that is a major part of the problem. And that is, again, part of the problem of our ignorance and our apathy. Why is it that the plight of the people of Gaza is not brought up until an attack happens on Israel?
Lex Fridman
(00:23:45)
I’ve gotten a chance to witness a destroyed school in Ukraine. That’s something that is really difficult to see.
Omar Suleiman
(00:23:57)
You have over a hundred destroyed mosques. Every university in Gaza has been demolished. We’re seeing TikTok videos of Israeli soldiers laughing and singing as they press a button. And we see the demolition of every single university in Gaza. Schools have been reduced to rubble. There’s a cultural genocide as well.
(00:24:22)
I want you to think about what you saw in Ukraine. Look, imagine coming back to school in Gaza in some destroyed building. You’re missing legs. You’re missing arms. You have white phosphorus burns. Have you ever seen what white phosphorus does to a person? There’s a reason why it’s a war crime. You have white phosphorus burns. Your mom’s dead. Your dad’s dead. All of your uncles and aunts are dead. All of your siblings are dead. Somehow you got pulled out of the rubble.
(00:24:49)
In my own family, my father’s in-laws, my father remarried after my mother passed away and they’re in Gaza, all of them were killed in an airstrike, except for an elderly aunt who somehow made it out of the rubble a day later. If you’re a child that’s been pulled out of the rubble, what are you going to grow up with? I mean, what are you supposed to feel? What are you supposed to think? And then you have racist commentators that say, “They could have turned that into a Singapore. The Palestinians are the authors of their own destruction, because if they wanted to, they could have turned this into a place of prosperity, but they keep on bringing destruction upon themselves.”
(00:25:38)
So, at the root of this is a bigotry. And again, this idea that Palestinians are savages, they’re animals, and the only way to deal with them is to continuously mow the lawn while simultaneously expanding the occupation and erasing anything that was ever called Palestine and any human being that was ever called the Palestinian.
Lex Fridman
(00:25:59)
So, those kids growing up in Gaza now, to you, they have almost no choice but to have hatred for Israel?
Omar Suleiman
(00:26:09)
It’s human. I mean, look, any child that is under that type of oppression is going to hate their oppressor. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what you are. But here’s my problem with how that gets brought up. You’re talking about the future of the security of Israel. Even some people that speak about it seemingly from a place of being well-meaning, that say the only way that Israel can have its security is to stop killing Palestinians. And so, the future of Israel depends upon Palestinians not hating Israel so much. And so, we’ve got to stop tormenting these people so that they don’t grow up to want to torment us.
(00:26:51)
You’ve already decided then whose life is worth more than the other. And so, instead of talking about the future of Israeli lives, why don’t you talk about the present of Palestinian lives? Instead of talking about whether or not your state will be secure in the future, talk to me about why you’re killing children now. Two thirds of the 30,000 civilians are women and children. And so, we can’t talk about what these children are going to grow up with. We should talk about whether or not these children are going to grow up in the first place. And that should be what dominates our conscience right now, and what drives our policies, and what drives our emotions right now.
Lex Fridman
(00:27:35)
When I had a conversation with Elon Musk, he suggested that what Israel should do is conspicuous acts of kindness. So, do as much positive things in Gaza as possible on a basic individual human level and at a policy level at every level. What do you think about that?
Omar Suleiman
(00:27:56)
You don’t pass out candy in a concentration camp, you and the occupation. And so, there has to be a solution that is beyond merely acts of kindness. At the end of the day, if you’re occupying a people, you have to remove that occupation. Apartheid is not dealt with by acts of kindness on the part of the occupying power. Apartheid is dealt with by ending apartheid. And so, there has to be a level of accountability. It’s not just acts of kindness. It’s not just treating the people with more dignity. It’s giving them the ability to pursue their own dignity.
(00:28:35)
There’s a reason why it’s called Palestinian self-determination. The United States likes to use it in all of its inconsequential statements, that we need Palestinian self-determination too. But the United States also voted against 138 states in the United Nations to allow for Palestinian self-determination. Self-determination means I get to pursue my own course of worth. I get to pursue my own happiness. I don’t have to depend on the benevolence of my occupier and when my occupier-
Omar Suleiman
(00:29:00)
To depend on the benevolence of my occupier, and when my occupier feels like throwing me a few more crumbs, it has to end. There has to be a point now where the world says this is not sustainable. It’s not just about ending the present genocide. A ceasefire is the bare minimum. I think any decent human being would be calling for a ceasefire right now, but at some point you cease occupation, you cease apartheid because what led to the ability of Israel to carry out a genocide without any accountability was that the global arena has permitted it to do so, largely due to American obstruction of justice.

Violence

Lex Fridman
(00:29:39)
Is violence an effective method of resistance?
Omar Suleiman
(00:29:45)
So, the framework that I would propose is that Dr. King mentioned that peace is not the absence of violence, it’s the presence of justice. And so, occupation and apartheid are violent even in their most benevolent manifestations. The default of occupation is that it is unjustified. The default of apartheid is that it is unjustified, and it must be dealt with. The default of resistance to occupation and apartheid is that it is justified, but there can be transgressions even in resisting occupation and apartheid, right? And I come to this from an Islamic perspective. My moral framework is Islam. The prophet Muhammad, peace be upon Him, was outraged when he saw a woman or a child that was dead from the other side, the side of his persecutor. And so, yes, we have a saying as Muslims that they are not our teachers. Our oppressors are not our teachers, but the concept of resistance to occupation, it is morally justified. It is justified by international law. Any occupied people have the right to defend themselves.
(00:31:10)
We talk about Israel’s right to defend itself. Israel is the occupier. Any occupied people by international law have the right to defend themselves, and any occupation is unjustified and illegal. And so, that’s where I start from. That’s the point that I come to this with. I think that the problem is that the Palestinians are told, “Find better ways to resist,” and then they are demonized when they try to find any other way to resist. If you go back a few years ago, you had the Great Return March. People in Gaza marched to the wall in what was one of the most inspiring protests or demonstrations that I had ever seen, March to the Wall, nonviolent protest, and snipers took out their legs. AP actually documented that Israeli snipers had knee counts, where you had an Israeli soldier that would say, “I took out 45 knees.” They actually had a register, a scroll of knee counts. And so, you have all these kids in Gaza walking around without legs now because they were targeted by snipers when they marched to the wall.
(00:32:21)
We’re told to find methods of nonviolent resistance, but when we boycott, when we launch boycotts around the world, in response to this transgression, in response to this ongoing oppression that the world powers have shown either the inability or the unwillingness to reign in, we’re told that that’s antisemitic, even though it is based on the South African method of bringing an end to the apartheid regime there. So, don’t respond with violence. Don’t respond nonviolently. Don’t protest. Don’t try to use people power in the face of global impotence at the political level.
(00:33:04)
Instead, let’s just keep talking about the two-state solution. And while talking about the two-state solution, if you were to look at a map under every single Israeli regime, conservative or liberal, whatever it is, the settlements have expanded. More Palestinian land has disappeared, more Palestinians have been dispossessed, more Palestinians have been killed. And so, we have these little pieces of land that keep on shrinking, and Jerusalem keeps disappearing, and there’s aggression whether Palestinians are resisting or not. But then we’re told, “Why can’t you people just pursue peace? Why can’t you just believe in a better way?”
(00:33:45)
All along, we’re hearing Israeli ministers become far more radical and open about their intentions to wipe us off the face of the earth. And that is actually their policy. It’s not just slogans. It’s not fringe elements. Actual Israeli ministers starting from the prime Minister himself, who has executed a policy of the removal of all Palestinian lands and Palestinian lives. And then we’re told, “Peace, peace, peace, peace.” And it is awfully ugly when you use the language of peace to suffocate the work of justice.
(00:34:16)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of his early sermons was something along the lines of, “When Peace Is Obnoxious,” when peace is obnoxious. It was in the 1950s around the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and he talked about how this obsession with the language of peace, is usually used to try to keep people in status quo and make them complacent with their miserable situation. That has been the story of the Palestinian people, that they’ve been told that if you do things differently, then you will find peace. But everything the Palestinians have tried, inside and outside, has been met with repression, the most violent forms of it there in Gaza and beyond. And so look, I start from the place of wanting to see peace. I want to see a situation in which no innocent people lose their lives, but we have to analyze the situation with some justice, with some fairness. What would any group of people do in this situation? That doesn’t mean that you hope for hell. That means that you analyze the existing circumstances of hell, which was life in Gaza even before October 7th.
Lex Fridman
(00:35:34)
That said, you did talk about [inaudible 00:35:37] and dignity, and you mentioned transgressions, so there is places where violence can go too far?
Omar Suleiman
(00:35:46)
Absolutely. So violence, again, the point is that you ask yourself why we’ve been silent about the violence all of this time. And you know what? When people say, “Well, what about this? Well, what about that?” My response is this. What I would love to see is effective international bodies of justice, being able to reign in any party that has committed an act of aggression or committed an act of injustice and hold them accountable. Any reasonable human being would say, “Yeah, you know what? There should be effective international bodies that can reign in parties that can’t be reigned in domestically, that could stop the violence. That could assign blame properly, and then have methods of accountability.” The problem is that Israel has been made invincible in the international arena because of the United States. And then we wonder why there’s such a rise in global anti-American sentiment.
(00:36:45)
It’s not because of American freedom. It’s because America is directly participating. The United States government is directly participating in the worst genocide that we have ever seen in our lives, playing out on screen, on social media, and we can’t do anything about it. So, I think that the point is that we need those international bodies. We need methods of effective accountability, and I would love to see blame properly assigned, and anyone that kills any innocent human being, taken to account, anyone that is guilty of a war crime, taken to account. We have to ask ourselves, why is it that Israel has violated over 63 United Nations resolutions, has expanded its occupation, has killed over 600 Palestinians before October 7th? Why is it that Israel cannot be held accountable? And so when you talk about words that get thrown around, that are used to justify violence against more innocent people, when I’m asked about terrorism, is it only terrorism if it’s a non-state actor, if someone’s sitting inside a room of suits, and can press a button and terrorize thousands of people and murder innocent people with no consequences, how is that not terrorism?
(00:38:11)
So, if terrorism is only to be assigned to non-state actors, then it’s a word without function. In fact, it’s a word that justifies more terror that is then reigned upon innocent populations. We have to have moral consistency. Children should not be killed. Non-combatant should not be targeted. We can all agree upon that. Why aren’t there proper investigative bodies, and then, proper international bodies of accountability then, that can execute their findings in a way that makes the world a better place. In a way that actually brings about more peace? And so, I think this is where we’re at right now, and this is the frustration, and this is the place that the Palestinians have been left.
Lex Fridman
(00:38:52)
So, to you, violence becomes terrorism when women and children, non-combatants, are killed, no matter who is doing the killing?
Omar Suleiman
(00:39:02)
Absolutely. Absolutely.
Lex Fridman
(00:39:07)
In America, for you, for other Palestinians, other Muslims in your community, what has all of this been like?
Omar Suleiman
(00:39:20)
It feels like there is a return to some of the days after 911, the dehumanization, the feeling of complete disregard for our humanity at the level of government, at the level of media. Feeling of an increase in surveillance, the feeling in an increase in bigotry. People are losing their jobs, and people are being berated on campuses, in grocery stores, and people are being killed. I went to the funeral of a 6-year-old boy who was killed directly due to anti-Palestinian propaganda. And so I think that a lot of us are feeling a return to that, but we also refuse to be cornered into a position where we are told to perpetually condemn acts of violence and not speak about the violence that’s committed against us here or abroad.
Lex Fridman
(00:40:24)
Can you tell the story of this boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume? He’s a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy who was stabbed 26 times in his home in Plainfield Township, Illinois. It was found to be a hate crime motivated by Islamophobia, and the attacker said, “You, Muslims, must die.”
Omar Suleiman
(00:40:50)
So, before Wadea was killed, Wadea was killed on a Saturday. It was the immediate Saturday after October 7th. I remember on Friday, media starts to reach out to every Imam in the country, every Muslim leader in the country, and say, “What are you going to do about this global day of Jihad? What are you going to do about the global day of Jihad?” It’s like, “What are you talking about?” It’s like, “Well, Hamas has called for a global day of Jihad, so how are you going to stop Muslims from attacking people?” Right? So, it’s Friday, and I’m like, “Well, this is the first I’m hearing from you.”
(00:41:25)
And I remember responding to a local reporter, most people I just ignored. I responded to a local reporter. I said, “I’ve got people in my community that have already lost 10, 15 relatives at that point. Now, it’s 20, 30, and you haven’t said a word, and now you’re reaching out to me about the potential violence of Muslims in America. This is great. This is just like 911.” What are you going to do to restrain, you angry Muslims, from responding to what’s happening overseas, and responding to the call of a global day of Jihad?
(00:41:56)
Guess what? That night, this man takes out a military knife and attacks a six-year-old boy, a six-year-old Palestinian boy. By the way, it gets worse the more details that you know. And I recently had a chance to go and speak to his mom because she was in the hospital when I was there for the funeral, so I had a chance to visit her not too long ago.
Lex Fridman
(00:42:20)
And she was attacked, also.
Omar Suleiman
(00:42:21)
She was attacked first. It was actually their landlord. So Hanaan, the mother, was at home with Wadea, 6-year-old boy. Landlord comes in, and with absolutely no emotion, just charges at her, starts with her. She was able to fight him off. Stabbed her initially seven or eight times with a military grade knife. She fought him off, escaped to call 911. And while she is calling 911, she hears Wadea. Wadea ran up to the man, calling him Uncle Joe because the landlord prior to that, had been kind to them, used to give Wadea toys. Wadea had an infectious, beautiful smile. Every picture you see of that kid, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful smile. And so, Wadea runs up to him, says, “Uncle Joe.” He runs up to him to give him a hug, even though he’s carrying a military grade knife with blood on it, because Wadea doesn’t believe that harm can come to him from that man. And Hanaan didn’t think that he would do anything to her kid, even in that fit of rage. The last thing that she says she heard was, “Oh, no,” Wadea the says, “Oh, no.” And then, he starts to stab him 26 times, says, “You, Muslims, must die.”
(00:43:53)
Usually, in a scene like that, police are hesitant to classify something as a hate crime. It was classified as a hate crime the very same day. The thing is that, who’s complicit in that hate crime? What filled that man’s head for him to believe that he was doing an act of good by murdering a 6-year-old Palestinian boy? And in reality, uncle Joe was motivated by President Joe Biden, who repeated a debunked report that there were 40 beheaded Israeli babies. And he said, “I saw 40 beheaded Israeli babies.” The White House walked it back afterwards in a statement that no one reads because it was factually false. But Uncle Joe heard it, and had been binge-watching media about these violent Palestinians, and suddenly the propaganda overcame his own humanity and what he knew of that family. And he went in and ruined their lives.
(00:44:57)
And now, just like any mom, she hasn’t moved a thing. His bike is still in the same place it was. His toys are still in the same place. She’s left with this great void, this great emptiness. If that was the only crime, it would be enough to wake this country up and say, “Oh, no, this is not where we need to go. Oh, no.” Right? The last thing she heard him say was, “Oh no,” if that was it.
(00:45:24)
And I got the news, by the way, when I was ironically at a protest. We were protesting on Saturday, Downtown Dallas, and I started getting all these texts about what happened in Chicago. Oh, no. Right? No Muslims attacked anyone. The media was in a frenzy over the global day of Jihad. I got called by national news outlets and local news outlets, “What are you going to do about Muslims that are going to turn into monsters, and start killing people in the streets?” Next thing we know, we have a dead six-year-old Palestinian boy. I went to his funeral, and that’s speaks to the proximity part of things.
(00:46:09)
Yeah, it felt like stepping into Gaza for a moment. It didn’t feel like America. Didn’t feel like America. It felt like stepping into Gaza. His casket, was wrapped in a Palestinian flag. There was not just sadness at his funeral, but a deep sense of anger. At the funeral, some of his family members shouted out, “Joe Biden, you did this. Joe Biden, you did this.”
(00:46:37)
And I remember the next day, it was right after the funeral, looking at the front page of CNN, and the story of Wadea was buried in the last section, and it was right over all these meaningless ads. And I thought to myself, that’s it. If this was an Arab man, let’s be real. Let’s be honest here. If this was a Palestinian landlord that stabbed a six-year-old Jewish boy to death, this would have gotten more attention. It would’ve been the front page of the news. And rightfully so, people would have grieved over the insanity of stabbing a six-year-old boy 26 times. Wadea became an afterthought the very next day.
(00:47:32)
And so it’s an extension of the bigotry, an extension of the racism, and there’s so much that happens after that. There’s the terrible stabbing of Detroit synagogue president, Samantha Woll, and it’s horrible. She was stabbed in her driveway, immediately front page of all the news outlets. Immediately, it’s the main news story. And immediately, the implications are, “There go the Muslims. The Palestinians have lost their minds. The Muslims have… They are who we thought they were. That’s what it is. They are who we thought they were. They went and they stabbed a synagogue president.” It turned out it wasn’t a hate crime, although it’s an awful crime. It turned out it wasn’t a hate crime. Wadea is an afterthought.
(00:48:14)
I had people reach out to me afterwards expressing condolences, and I responded to them, those who have justified the genocide in Gaza but that were somehow offering condolences for Wadea privately, of course. By the way, if a Muslim would’ve committed that crime, every single Muslim leader would’ve had press in front of their door to condemn that crime. We would’ve all been made complicit.
(00:48:42)
Had people reach out to me, say, “I’m sorry about what happened with Wadea. It’s terrible. I saw you at the funeral, praying for you.” My response was, “What’s the difference between Wadea and a boy in Gaza? What’s the difference between me and Wadea?” I’m a Palestinian child. My parents made it out of Palestine. I was born in this country. If I didn’t have the opportunity to grow up here and to become the person that I became, you would’ve been justifying my murder right now. You would’ve been okay with my genocide. You would’ve been giving the talking points to the press to erase me. But you feel sorry because Wadea was killed.
(00:49:18)
And I think this is when we say that anti-Palestinian bigotry is an extension of Islamophobia. If a mosque gets targeted here, people rightfully rush to protect that mosque and say, “This is horrible, and it shouldn’t happen.” But when you have an Israeli soldier bombing a mosque and laughing like a maniac on video, and it’s going viral on TikTok, and there’s no way to reign that in. And you don’t have a word of condemnation about it. In fact, you are standing in the way of a ceasefire, then you’re a hypocrite. There’s no way around it. You are a hypocrite. What’s the difference between a mosque here and a mosque there? What’s the difference between a Palestinian life here and a Palestinian life there? If you’re okay with me being murdered there, don’t say that you care about my life here. And so that hypocrisy has been laid bare.
(00:50:03)
We have said multiple times, masks are falling, masks are falling. People that we thought were decent people, somehow have found it in themselves to justify a genocide. There is no shortage at this point of videos. And again, I could have made the excuse for you, maybe in the first few weeks, that you hadn’t seen enough. But with all social media suppression across all platforms, there isn’t a single platform that hasn’t suppressed Palestinian voices. With all that suppression, there are enough videos at this point of children whose heads have been blowing off. Of children walking around without limbs. Of parents carrying their kids in bags, not body bags, I mean grocery bags because they don’t even have body bags, and screaming out, and saying, “Why are you doing this to me? Make it stop.” And you come back, and you tell the person, ” It’s Hamas’ fault.”
(00:51:03)
Where is your humanity? Where is your sense of decency? Isn’t that the logic of the so-called terrorism that you condemn? Yeah, you can wipe out entire populations. You should have talked to Hamas. It’s Hamas’ fault. All the kids in the West Bank… Where does this end? So, what are your moral boundaries here? If that’s the logic that you’re okay with, then, in that case, when there’s a mass shooter in a school in the United States, just bomb the whole school. In fact, bomb the whole town if you can’t find the mass shooter. Where does this end for you? And so when I say people have lost their humanity, they’re killing us overseas, but their hearts are dying. People have lost their humanity. They’ve lost any sense of morality and their moral boundaries, and being there, and participating in this funeral, it was anger. I’m not used to that. I’m not used to that.
(00:52:01)
I’m an imam. I pastor to people. I went to Christchurch, and that was the worst I’d ever seen before where 50 Muslims were killed by a white supremacist, and he murdered them with such callousness. And I remember being at those funerals, and there was anger, but it was just profound sadness because at least the rest of the world could all come out in one voice and say, “That’s wrong.” Now, most of the world sees what’s happening in Gaza and says, this is disgusting. Most of the world sees this, and says, “This is a genocide.” But we happen to live in this bubble here where we’re constantly being told, “We did this to ourselves.” And that’s the same logic that led to our initial expulsion, 1948. What was the crime of those 700,000 Palestinians that were driven out of their home in 1948? What did they do? They did not commit the Holocaust. They didn’t have a mass murder of Jews at their hands. What did they do? What crime were they paying for? And so, it’s been the consistent theme, this is the story of our people, not since October 7th, this is the story of our people for the last 75 years.

Biden and Trump

Lex Fridman
(00:53:17)
There is a deep geopolitical connection between the United States and that part of the world. What is the role of US politicians in all of this?
Omar Suleiman
(00:53:28)
James Baldwin wrote about how Israel was created as an extension of United States policy to be a colonial entity at the gates of the Middle East, and to function essentially as a military base out there, and as a means of extending its policy throughout the Middle East, and it has functioned as such. The United States is not an honest peace broker. It never has been an honest peace broker. The United States has never shown any meaningful inclination towards peace. Has guarded and protected Israel from international accountability, has made Israel invincible.
(00:54:15)
The United States is not just responsible at the governmental level for the genocide. It’s responsible for letting it get to this point in the first place. We have funded that arsenal. We’ve given them the most sophisticated weapons in the world to test on the most desperate population in the world. We’ve given them the weapons. It’s been bipartisan. We have issued, at most, inconsequential statements of condemnation, but at the same time, stopped any international body of law from actually holding it accountable.
(00:54:57)
So, the United States, at this point, unfortunately, has rightfully lost all credibility. It should remove itself from this because it is not an honest peace broker. I think Americans are probably sick of us paying for wars in general. I think Americans are probably sick of our tax dollars going to funding a genocide, while we have a rise of homelessness and income disparity here in the United States. I think that Americans probably don’t like that we’re making ourselves so deeply unpopular in the world because of Israel’s actions. So, in the immediate moment, make the stop.
(00:55:42)
The United States could have had a ceasefire a long time ago. The United States could have ended this genocide right away. The reason why this is continuing is because of US foreign policy. And in the process of Joe Biden talking about managing this crisis and talking about making things better, there have only been more bills that have come out of Congress. In fact, he’s bypassed Congress to fund the arsenal, to keep replenishing the arsenal. Stop paying for weapons. Stop paying for someone else’s war crimes. Stop protecting another country as it commits these war crimes. And if you can’t be an honest peace broker, get out of the process.
Lex Fridman
(00:56:24)
So, there’s money that you just mentioned, and bills. And then, there’s rhetoric, which you also criticized, that he spoke about, the beheaded babies and things of that nature, so where has Joe Biden fallen short?
Omar Suleiman
(00:56:40)
We need another podcast. That’s going to take a few hours to talk about where Joe Biden has failed. For one, the first time he seemed to find the word Palestinian in his vocabulary was when he accused the Palestinians of lying about the death toll in Gaza. And then, that turned out to also be false. In fact, the numbers that were coming out of the Gaza Health Ministry, according to multiple international bodies, have been underreporting Palestinian casualty counts. Israeli intelligence has said that the civilian count or the death toll is actually higher than what’s been coming out of the Gaza Health Ministry, so he’s failed on that front.
(00:57:18)
He has failed to speak to Palestinian humanity. He has spoken with deep passion and concern, as has Anthony Blinken, about the devastation in Israel and the way that people are feeling in Israel and has shown nothing of that sort towards Palestinians. We don’t want the rhetoric. We really don’t want the rhetoric. When people say, “Call for a ceasefire,” the United States has had an opportunity, and has an opportunity to really walk back and reflect on its entire policy towards Israel-Palestine. This is a moment of reflection. This is a moment of…
Omar Suleiman
(00:58:00)
… of reflection. This is a moment of restoration if you want it to be, right? And to think about what we’ve enabled in the first place, he’s shown absolutely no real empathy, and I think that he is under great delusion in thinking that the Muslim community or people of conscience are going to forgive this, are going to forget this come November. You can’t tell us that, ” Well, at least I don’t have the Trump Muslim ban,” while also carrying out a genocide primarily against Muslims and think that the Muslims are still going to vote for you.
(00:58:39)
And so we will make him hear us set the polls and any politician, for Congress or otherwise, that has not called for a ceasefire that has been a part of this dehumanization, we will make sure that we cease support for them in any way as a community. It’s only right.
Lex Fridman
(00:58:59)
So Biden has lost or is losing the hearts and the support of the Palestinian people and the Muslim people in America?
Omar Suleiman
(00:59:08)
I don’t know if he ever had the hearts of the Muslim community to be honest with you. I personally was never a Joe Biden fan. I think a lot of people felt the same. This country unfortunately, the way that our political system is built is that you’re always voting for the lesser of the two evils. That’s always the way that it is, analyzing which evil is lesser, right?
Lex Fridman
(00:59:08)
Yeah.
Omar Suleiman
(00:59:27)
And when people say, “If you vote for Donald Trump,” and I’m not planning to vote for Donald Trump either, but, “if you don’t vote for Joe Biden, then you are destroying democracy.” I’m like a democracy that’s given us a choice between Donald Trump. And Joe Biden is already a failed democracy, and so he never had the hearts and minds of the Muslim community. People always saw past his rhetoric. He always has had a terrible disposition towards Palestine. He’s always had a terrible disposition towards the Muslim world. His segregationist past comes out sometimes when he starts talking about the Muslim world, and you can hear the racism in his voice and you can hear the way that he talks about Palestinian life in such devalued fashion.
(01:00:13)
So he lost us a long time ago, but he’s definitely not getting us back after this in any way. And I can’t speak for all Muslims, but I think that come November, he and all of those politicians, especially in swing states that have turned their back on the Muslim community, and not just the Muslim community, by the way. 67% of this country wants a ceasefire. Three-fourths of Democratic voters want a ceasefire. Half of Republican voters want a ceasefire. It’s not just the Muslim community. This is not some radical opinion to call for a ceasefire, and every single politician that has refused to hear us is going to pay a price at the polls, as they should.
(01:00:59)
That doesn’t mean that we’re under any illusion that the other side promises us anything better. In fact, it feels like Republicans have simply rushed to out-racist the Democrats, to outpace them in terms of talking about how they’re going to be more unapologetic in supporting Israel unconditionally. It’s been pathetic, but something has to change, and I think that Americans of conscience have to look at how this failed political system has hurt people here and abroad and talk about how to transcend that with just more humanity. Again, when you have 67% of the American public that wants a ceasefire, but only a handful of congressmen out of over 500 can muster up the courage in the face of these super PACs to say that we should stop the genocide, what are you asking for here?
(01:01:56)
You’re asking for the genocide to stop. You’re asking for Israeli hostages to be brought home. You’re asking for Palestinian prisoners to be released. You’re asking for peace and to start carving the path out to end this once and for all in the most ambiguous way possible, by the way, because there aren’t many radical American politicians. It’s the way that the system is. In the most ambiguous, bare way possible, and you can’t even bring yourself to do that. This is already a failed democracy then. All the while, again, it always boggles my mind, if you’re from the America First crew, what’s America First about? Funneling billions and billions and billions of dollars to Israel while it carries out this genocide while people are starving here.
(01:02:42)
And if you’re part of the human rights crew and progressive crew, they have a term called progressive except Palestine, right? PeP, Progressive except Palestine. Where are all your notions of social justice? You talk about policing here, but you don’t talk about who trains our police departments in many major cities and the type of brutality that’s being carried out there. You talk about human rights at the border here, but you don’t talk about the assault on people at the border there. You talk about all of these things here, but you somehow use the exact same framings against the people there. So it’s exposed, I think, the moral bankruptcy of both political polar opposites that exist in this country right now and hopefully, evoked a greater societal sentiment to say this is ridiculous.
(01:03:33)
One of the things that is happening is that more people are getting their news outside of legacy media outlets. You can’t hide that many dead babies anymore. You just can’t. More people have woken up to the Palestinian plight now than ever before. More people are outraged that this has been our American foreign policy all throughout Democratic and Republican administrations. This is what we’ve been paying for? This is what we’ve been excusing? And Israeli leaders literally spit in the faces of whoever the American president is and says, “Yeah, we don’t care what they tell us to do.”
(01:04:12)
American leadership says, “We’re pushing Israel to minimize the casualties, to get less indiscriminate with its bombing, to manage the crisis, get a few more humanitarian corridors in, to make sure that Gaza is not evacuated and not ethnically cleansed, to make sure Palestinians can come back.” And Netanyahu comes on TV and says, “From the river to the sea,” how ironic is that? From the river to the sea, and that is his policy. “We’re going to make sure that Israel controls from the river to the sea, and we’re going to push Palestinians into Sinai and Muslim countries need to take them in.”
(01:04:47)
You have Israeli ministers, national defense ministers saying things openly like, “We want to thin out the population,” i.e. ethnic cleansing. “We want to remove people, and the Muslim world needs to step up and take in these refugees.”
(01:05:06)
And the American administration or the American President says, or an American Secretary of State says, “We’re talking to them and we’re making sure that that’s not going to happen.” And if one of their ministers says something, Blinken maybe tweets out something about how that’s not going to happen, but then it happens anyway, and then we still write them the checks.
(01:05:25)
So I think most of the American public is probably going to get sick of this at some point, and just people of decency and people of conscience are going to say, “Yeah, this is not something we want to be a part of anymore.”
Lex Fridman
(01:05:35)
Do you think there’s something that Donald Trump can do to help move this in the right direction?
Omar Suleiman
(01:05:45)
Trump’s first words were about how he’s going to be worse on this. So he talked about how he’s going to deport people, revoke visas of students that are part of these pro-Palestinian rallies.
Lex Fridman
(01:06:02)
Also, the focus was on the rallies versus what’s going on abroad.
Omar Suleiman
(01:06:07)
Yeah, but look, we had a Donald Trump presidency. He moved the embassy to Jerusalem. He was not better on this. Unfortunately, this is a bipartisan problem. And so again, we’re under no illusion here. We’re not looking to Donald Trump as a savior here, but we are going to penalize Joe Biden, and I can’t speak for everybody, but I think that that’s where a lot of our minds are at right now.

Ceasefire march

Lex Fridman
(01:06:29)
You spoke at the November 4th demonstration of Washington called the Free Palestine March. It had a lot of people, several hundred thousand people there. What do you remember from that experience?
Omar Suleiman
(01:06:41)
Well, the first thing I remember is that there was no news coverage of it. So 400,000 people march on DC, one of the largest marches in history. It was nowhere to be found in mainstream media coverage. Whereas when the Stand With Israel Rally happened between the 300,000 strong Palestine rally and the 400,000 strong Palestine rally, there was a Stand with Israel rally where congressmen were bused from Congress to speak at that rally, Democrats and Republicans and high profile celebrities, and it was live-streamed across multiple places. I have to say this, the ICJ, if that wasn’t the greatest display of media bias in the domain of United States mainstream media, then I don’t know what is. They live-streamed the Israeli defense on multiple news outlets defending itself against the case for genocide and completely omitted the South African presentation of the crimes of Israel the day before.
(01:07:46)
So what I remember first and foremost about the protest is that they were nowhere to be found on mainstream media, which was expected. But what I also remember from the actual day of and from all of the pro Palestine rallies is that I have never seen a more multi-faith, more diverse group of people consistently coming out for Palestine against the genocide in Gaza than I have this time around. And I think that has been the experience all around. There has been a pronounced Jewish presence, Jewish voice for peace, if not now, other anti-Zionist Jewish groups, groups that are against the genocide, against the occupation. Former Israeli soldiers even that have been showing up at these protests. There has been a pronounced presence from Native American groups, indigenous groups, all across the board, right? Christians, Jews, Muslims. I’ve never seen more diversity at these rallies than I’ve seen this time around, which I think is a sign of where things are going.
(01:08:48)
And if you look at the under 35 opinion polls, it’s very clear that there’s a generational gap here. That the country is moving into a more coherent direction and understanding what has been happening over there, and people from all backgrounds are standing up to it now.
Lex Fridman
(01:09:07)
What do you think about the protests on campus against Israel?
Omar Suleiman
(01:09:13)
Every protest I’ve been to has had the exact same tenor, has had the exact same messaging, but you always have that idiot or two that shows up with a sign and no one knows who that idiot is, ironically. Never comes with anybody else, always shows up somehow in the middle of the protest and puts up a sign that says something completely contrary to the messaging of the protest, and then all the cameras shift towards that guy. I see it every single time. But the overwhelming tenor of all of these protests has been consistent. It’s been calling for freedom. It’s been calling for liberation. It’s been calling for an end to the genocide, a ceasefire, an end to the occupation, an end to the apartheid.
(01:09:57)
I will tell you what many people are not seeing, Columbia University, two former IDF soldiers spraying Palestinian protesters with skunk water, which is what the IDF uses on Palestinian protesters and sometimes on worshipers on their way to Masjid al-Aqsa, which has multiple health repercussions. And so I was reading about how one of the students that was sprayed on campus, that Columbia Palestinian student has showered, at this point of us doing this podcast, 11 times, cannot get the smell out of her, has suffered all sorts of health issues as a result of being sprayed. Again, people are not seeing the other side here. People are not seeing what we’ve had to deal with at these protests. The open bigotry, and I want you to think about this by the way.
(01:10:54)
People go and serve in the IDF and then come back to the United States or the United Kingdom, and they’re not stigmatized for participating in apartheid policies or participating in a genocide. How am I supposed to feel as a Palestinian knowing that this guy right next to me participated in murdering my relatives in Gaza and has open rein to say what he wants to say or do what he wants to do? And so we haven’t seen the other side of that as well, but I’d recommend to anyone that’s talking about pro-Palestine protests to actually go see one. If you go to the protests, you listen to what’s being said, and you don’t just capture them, you got 400,000 people. You’re going to find four stupid people at a protest of 400,000 people because the protest scene is always messy.
(01:11:47)
But I think that this is a sign of the outrage and the anger and the frustration that many students have about being silenced. Again, in the media, in academic settings, professors are losing their jobs. Students are having their faces put on trucks, being doxed, these shady watch lists that get put out. I’m on a few of them as well and I just don’t care anymore. But you got these shady watch lists. People are losing their jobs at law firms. They’re losing all of their future opportunities, young Palestinian students, because of something that they tweeted that’s being taken out of context 10 years ago when they were 17 years old. It’s ridiculous. And so I think that we have to listen to the overwhelming majority of voices of people that are demonstrating for justice, not demonstrating against anyone, but demonstrating for people.
(01:12:50)
Again, there’s a large pronounced Jewish presence at every single pro-Palestine March. In fact, if you look at the organizations, the groups that have taken over Capitol Hill and train stations, it’s been, If Not Now, Not In Our Name, Never Again Means For Anyone. It’s been Jewish groups, many Jewish anti-occupation groups that have been at the forefronts. And I think that that’s where we have to pay attention to the beauty of how diverse this movement for a free Palestine has actually been.
Lex Fridman
(01:13:25)
So the average sentiment is anti- occupation, not anti-Semitic?
Omar Suleiman
(01:13:33)
It’s incredibly lazy to say that anti-Zionism or that anti-occupation is anti-Semitic. First and foremost, the Palestinians are a Semitic people. That’s number one. Number two, look, I’m proud of my community. My community has stood against anti-Semitism in this country. The Muslim community has been at the forefront of condemning anti-Semitism. We have stood in front of synagogues. We have stood with the Jewish community when the Jewish community is attacked. This is about occupation. This is a story of a colonial entity that has driven us out of our homes and has done so in such a way that has forced us to try to be the voice of a people that are being exterminated overseas right now. This is not an anti-Semitic movement. This is a pro-freedom movement.
Lex Fridman
(01:14:28)
Do you think the protests ever go too far?
Omar Suleiman
(01:14:31)
The protest scene is a messy scene, and so again, you’re going to have sometimes that odd speaker or people get carried away in their emotions. And yes, sometimes people chant things or do things that are contrary to the protests. It’s pretty unfair when you judge the entire protest movement by some of these incidents that have happened at protests, and you don’t pay attention to what they’re protesting about in the first place, which is a genocide. Right now, everything is secondary to ending a genocid