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Dial-A-Brain

A new speakers bureau, with audiences of one.

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Among the many ways for celebrity thinkers to monetize their wisdom, there’s now this: They can sign up with new service Expert Insight, which brokers one-on-one video chats between assorted gurus (academics, authors, and some sports coaches and poker pros) and anyone willing to pay the hourly fee. FiveThirtyEight blogger Nate Silver was among the launch offerings but then backed out; the remaining minds-for-hire include Freakonomics co-author and University of Chicago economist ­Steven Levitt, who agreed to a test session by phone.

How does a nice economist like you get involved with something like this?

I know [the site’s founder, poker pro and behavioral-finance expert] Brandon Adams, and I wanted to help him out. And because I’m an economist and I believe in markets and the power of technology, I found the idea intriguing. It allows experts to connect with the very small group of people who want to talk to them and are willing to pay for it. Let’s say one of the world’s best cancer doctors, he’s here in the U.S. A patient in India writes him, and the doctor says, “I’m sorry, but I’m too busy taking care of my patients to help you.” What do they say to get his attention? Say, “I’ll pay you.”

That seems very elitist.

It’s elitist in the way the market is elitist. The quality of health care is dependent on what you’re willing and able to pay. The quality of education is dependent on what you’re willing and able to pay. The quality of services is dependent on what you’re willing and able to pay.

What if the conversation goes in a weird direction?

I’m not so worried about that. Honestly, I haven’t even thought about it.

What are you wearing?

I’m wearing … what am I wearing?

I just want to get a visual.

I’m wearing chinos. Or whatever you call tan pants. And a … a blue shirt, long sleeved. I think it’s a polo. I can’t imagine it would go in that direction, not with someone like me.

Nate Silver was reportedly charging $1,000 an hour before he backed out. What’s your rate?

My fee is listed as “call for hourly rate.” The amount I would charge is so outrageously high I worry people would think badly of me. I have four young children, and I like to play golf. I would have to charge a really high price to make it worth my time.

Stephen Dubner, your Freakonomics co-writer, is also listed on the site. Does he charge less?

He probably does, just because he doesn’t have a real job like I do. And he’s a much more social person. He gets much less disutility out of talking to other people.

An hour does seem a long time to open yourself up to people.

I’ve been lobbying for half-hour sessions.


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