My Friend Donated a Kidney So We Could Meet Steven Levitt

Jackson, Steven, and Me. Best Friends Forever. Also, is that my hand awkwardly behind Levitt’s neck? Probably so.

My best friend Jackson donated a kidney so I could meet award winning economist, Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics fame.

Well, that’s not why he donated a kidney. He donated a kidney because he realized he only needed one to live a healthy life. That, plus he knew other people needed one, according to a Freakonomics podcast. So he, a healthy 27 year old, donated a kidney anonymously to a stranger. An act of kindness so selfless, that it temporarily short circuited my brain out of a depression. (Which led to me proposing to my future wife, but I’ll save that for another time.)

Also, it led to Jackson and me meeting Steven Levitt.

Jackson, a stem cell researcher and all-around-more-impressive-person-than-me, was coming to Chicago for a biology conference. So he emailed Levitt to see if he could get some books signed. Levitt, seemed intrigued by his decision to donate a kidney and invited him to his office. This is where my little brother instincts kicked in, “Can I come? I can take pictures or something!”

We waited for Levitt in front of his office. He was fashionably late. Clearly a economical power move. Also, the universities staff meeting ran late. He walked by us and into his office (Power Move #2.)

Jackson and I glanced at each other like, “Does that look like the guy whose voice we’ve heard and words we’ve read?”

Levitt invited us in. He told us upfront that he was going to have to leave in a few minutes to pick up his kids (Power Move #3.)

“No problem.” we said.

Jackson quickly made an assembly line on the table for the books to be signed. I was standing in the corner of the room getting my phone’s camera ready. I didn’t want to make myself comfortable in Levitt’s office if he was in a rush.

“Did you donate your kidney for money?” Levitt told Jackson.

“No, I donated it to a kidney bank.”

“Oh, so you’re part of the problem. By you doing it for free, you took away incentives to change the market for kidney exchanges.”

It’s not often that you meet someone who tells a kidney donor, “…you’re part of the problem.” I can see why some people get the wrong impression of him.

Then he put his pen down from the books he was signing and asked us to sit down.

We started talking about the possibilities of a kidney market. The slippery slope and taboo of selling organs. Then he told us about how his son’s organs were donated after he passed away. I didn’t know he had such a loss.

Jackson, being the good person he is, said, “I’m sorry to hear about your loss.”

Me, being the awkward person that I am, said, “Hmm.”

We all ended up talking for an hour. It got to the point where I was really hoping he was just lying about picking up his kids, because I could shoot the shit with him all day. I felt like Jackson and I were talking to an old high school friend. We dove right into the kind of deep conversation that makes you mad that other people still small talk about the weather. We even talked about my possible move to Alabama. (He made some economical arguments against it. He even convinced me to quit stand-up on a coin toss, but, again, I’ll get to that later.)

Levitt’s obviously an intelligent man, but I don’t think enough is said about how inviting he is with his knowledge. In hindsight, he really did what most academics strive for — making their subject relevant.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is — meeting Steven Levitt is worth a friend’s kidney.