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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 13:11

(Photo: Samantha Cohen)

(Photo: Samantha Cohen)

Imagine a fantasy world that’s exactly as the world is today except that two things are missing: alcohol and marijuana. And then imagine that tomorrow, both of them are discovered. What happens now? How are each of them used – and, perhaps more importantly, regulated? How would we weigh the relative benefits and costs of alcohol versus marijuana?

That’s the topic of our latest podcast, “What’s More Dangerous: Marijuana or Alcohol?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

As simple a question as this may be, it isn’t so easy to answer empirically. That’s because alcohol is legal, widely available, relatively cheap, and for the most part society smiles upon it — whereas marijuana is generally illegal, less easily available, and often frowned upon. This, of course, is changing, as more places are legalizing marijuana (Colorado and Washington State in the U.S.; Portugal, meanwhile, decriminalized many drugs not long ago.) That said, there is a lot more data on alcohol use than marijuana use, simply because of alcohol’s prevalence.

Working within these limitations, we do our best to address the question of whether alcohol or marijuana is “more dangerous.” Along the way, you’ll hear Steve Levitt‘s views on the relationship between alcohol and crime. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron tells us whether prohibition works, and whether the long-standing belief in marijuana as a gateway drug is legitimate. And you’ll hear from the British psychiatrist David Nutt, a one-time “drug czar” who was fired for criticizing the British government’s decision to reclassify marijuana as a more serious drug. Nutt had come to believe that alcohol (and cigarettes) are, on balance, more dangerous than marijuana and other drugs. He and his colleagues calculated the “harm score” of various drugs, taking into account everything from physical damage to lost productivity. As you can see here, alcohol came out at the very top — in large part, to be sure, because of its prevalence:


Nutt is, however, realistic about the everlasting appeal of alcohol:

NUTT: Most of my professional career, I have been trying to find ways of treating alcoholism and helping people deal with the problems of alcohol dependence and alcohol withdrawal, and trying to find an antidote to alcohol. And I realize now that’s impossible. And it occurred to me a while back that maybe we’re asking the wrong question — rather than try to solve the problem of alcohol, why don’t we find an alternative to alcohol which doesn’t cause problems. Find a safe alternative, a drug which makes you pleasantly intoxicated, but which does not cause addiction, does not rot your brain, your liver or your guts, etc.

That’s why Nutt and his colleagues have been working on a synthetic alcohol product, as well as an alcohol antidote, a “sober pill”:

NUTT: So the idea would be you would have this safe alcohol that you could drink and have fun. But you could also take an antidote that would block its effects. So you would sober up within half an hour if you took a pill. And that would mean that you were perfectly, absolutely normal and you could drive home quite safely.

Author: "Stephen J. Dubner" Tags: "Featured Post, Featured Radio Post, Frea..."
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Date: Thursday, 17 Apr 2014 12:07

[MUSIC: Brilliantes del Vuelo, “Drunken Heroics”]

Stephen J. DUBNER: Hey podcast listeners, don’t forget our new book Think Like a Freak will be published on May 12th. So if you think you need to set aside a little bit of time on that day for some light reading, maybe you want to go ahead and call in sick right now just to get it out of the way.

Stephen J. DUBNER: Let’s begin with a thought experiment. Imagine a fantasy world that’s exactly as the world is today – smartphones, cars, podcasts, Jimmy Fallon at 11:35pm. But two things are missing: alcohol and marijuana. They don’t exist yet. Now, it may be hard to imagine that our civilization has gotten to this advanced stage without alcohol and marijuana – but that’s a different thought experiment. That’s not what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about is this fantasy world – the one we have today – without alcohol or marijuana, and then tomorrow, they are both discovered. What happens now? How are each of them used – and, perhaps more important, how are each of them regulated? If we were starting from scratch – with no cultural or legal baggage, with no preconceptions – how would we weigh the relative benefits and, especially, the costs of marijuana versus alcohol?

David NUTT: Alcohol, I’m not so sure about alcohol. I wonder if alcohol was discovered today, I think people would be very concerned about the toxicity. And I suspect alcohol would be banned within ten years if it became available today. If marijuana was discovered today I think people would probably accept it.


[MUSIC: Louis Thorne, “Waltz for Robin”]

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

Steve LEVITT: Humankind loves alcohol.

DUBNER: Steve Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He’s an economist at the University of Chicago.

LEVITT: We should just start by saying that. That it is amazing how widespread alcohol use is, how much utility people get out of it. And we’re going to focus on the negatives now, but I think you can’t forget that basic point.

DUBNER: Okay, we won’t forget that basic point. But first, let’s focus on the relative costs of alcohol and marijuana. Now, I don’t mean the price; I’m talking about costs to society, especially. If the world suddenly discovered both alcohol and marijuana tomorrow, how would we assess their effects, and how would we treat each of them?

LEVITT: I’ll give you the answer of what an economist would do, which is obviously very different than what a politician might do, but an economist would take the view that things that people do to themselves maybe we shouldn’t worry about very much. That all we need to worry about when it comes to alcohol and marijuana are the externalities. What negative effect of my consuming alcohol is there on the people around me on society. And the same for marijuana. And those are numbers you can imagine trying to quantify. And what an economist would say is, ‘well, let’s just build into the price of alcohol a tax that is appropriate to try to internalize that externality.’ And then to do the same thing with marijuana. I think what we maybe have less information about what the externalities are on marijuana, but my guess is that many people, probably, rightly, would think that the externalities of marijuana are smaller than the externalities of alcohol.

[MUSIC: Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics, “The Agenda” (from It’s About Time)]

DUBNER: Now, the reason that we have less information about the negative externalities of marijuana is because in most places, marijuana is illegal. This does a few things. It makes it harder to collect reliable data. It dictates the nature of the market for marijuana; when you have an illicit market, and the profits that go along with it, you have the potential for criminal activity and violence, and other costs to society – like the police and the jails you need to devote to marijuana. According to F.B.I. data, roughly half of all drug arrests in the U.S. are for marijuana offenses: 42 percent for possession and 6 percent for sale or manufacturing. But as we all know, marijuana is becoming legal in more places – in Colorado and Washington State here in the U.S.; in 2001, Portugal decriminalized personal possession of many drugs, including marijuana. President Obama, quite famously, told David Remnick of The New Yorker that “I don’t think it [marijuana] is more dangerous than alcohol.” Alright, so let’s start there, with something we can measure pretty well: how dangerous is alcohol?

NUTT: It’s a significant factor in high blood pressure and heart damage; it’s the most damaging drug to the brain.

DUBNER: That’s David Nutt. He’s a psychiatrist at Imperial College London and former chairman of the U.K.’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs – emphasis on former chairman; we’ll get to that in a minute.

NUTT: It’s one of the most addictive substances, and it’s associated with a whole range of different cancers. So overall, alcohol is responsible for shortening the life expectancy, accelerating death in over 3 million people in the world today. It’s the leading cause of death in the world today after tobacco.

DUBNER: Nutt worked in government for 10 years, trying to assess the relative dangers of all different sorts of drugs.

NUTT: And all the time I was trying to get evidence to dominate decision making, which is what the law says it should do. And all the time I was meeting resistance. And eventually I got sacked…

DUBNER: And why did David Nutt get fired?

BBC BROADCAST: Now, the government’s chief adviser on drug policy has been sacked after insisting that alcohol and cigarettes are more dangerous than cannabis and ecstasy. The Home Secretary Alan Johnson said he no longer had confidence in the advice being given by Professor David Nutt, who had also criticized Ministers for reclassifying Cannabis as a more serious drug.

DUBNER: So you can see which side of the debate David Nutt would land on in our marijuana vs. alcohol thought experiment. And it isn’t just the personal downsides of alcohol consumption; it’s the externalities, the societal costs. Drunk driving, for instance. In the U.S., there are roughly 10,000 alcohol-related driving deaths a year, roughly a third of total traffic deaths. Drinking is heavily correlated with other antisocial behaviors.

NUTT: We know that alcohol is strongly associated with acquisitive crime, burglary, with violence generally, particularly with domestic violence, child abuse…

LEVITT: The share of people who are arrested who are, who have been drinking is shockingly high.

DUBNER: That’s Steve Levitt again.

LEVITT: And even more telling, in some sense, is that the share of victims of crimes are incredibly likely to be drunk as well. I always wondered whether it was just that everybody’s drunk all the time, or really being drunk puts you in situations where you get arrested. But, if you watch “Cops,” and as you know I watch “Cops.” If you watch “Cops..”

DUBNER: We should say “Cops” the TV show, we’re talking about. Not actual cops.

LEVITT: If you watch “Cops” the TV show, the next time you watch “Cops” the TV show, just try to keep a tally of every person who comes around who’s engaged with the police, what share of them do you think have not been using either drugs or alcohol in the last few hours, and it is a really, really low number.

DUBNER: Right, although, as a selection tool goes, that’s not very precise because it could be that all the non-drunk people are too boring for TV.

LEVITT: It could be. And it’s hard to know. But the official data, it is shocking. The level of alcohol abuse among people who get arrested is just amazingly high.

[MUSIC: Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators, “Witching Hour Blues” (from Harlem Mad)]

DUBNER: Here’s a number to consider: roughly half of all homicide offenders in the U.S. were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crime. When it comes to domestic violence, roughly two-thirds of the offenders had been drinking. So you could imagine that if society was starting from scratch without alcohol, in this fantasy world, we might all say no way. It’s just too dangerous. And what about marijuana?

LEVITT: I don’t think that there is any evidence that links use of marijuana to increased violence.

DUBNER: Note that Levitt said “use of marijuana.” Not selling drugs, which as we know can create violence. That said, there was a time when marijuana use was linked to violence:

ARCHIVAL AUDIO: Marijuana, the burning weed with its roots in Hell.

Jeffrey MIRON: That was the whole “Reefer Madness” story from, you know, from 50, 60 years ago, that marijuana use made you a homicidal maniac.

DUBNER: That is Jeffrey Miron. He teaches economics at Harvard and is the director of economic policy studies for the Cato Institute.

MIRON: I don’t think there is much credibility left of that perspective. So many people are concerned that marijuana is what is known as a gateway drug, that is once you use marijuana it makes you more likely to use other drugs. I don’t think there’s any evidence for it that I would regard as statistically credible. All that one can really document is that many people who use harder drugs did use marijuana before they used harder drugs. But a huge fraction of those who use marijuana never go on to use harder drugs. So the effect, if any, would appear to be quite small. And of course we can point out that almost everybody who goes on to use marijuana or alcohol say, started off on mother’s milk or McDonald’s French fries. So the prior use by itself we don’t think of as causal, it’s just that there does seem to be an evolution in the pattern for those people who end up going on to use harder drugs.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO: Debauchery, violence, murder, suicide…and the ultimate end of the marijuana addict.

DUBNER: Here’s David Nutt again, the former U.K. drug czar:

NUTT: When we look at the health dangers of marijuana, we see that there are remarkably little considering the wide use of the drug. So in the U.K. there’s almost no deaths attributable to marijuana. And people say well how can that be? When people are smoking it year, on year, on year, and the truth is people actually don’t smoke as much burning material when they smoke marijuana. Also the marijuana leaf burns at a lower temperature than the tobacco leaf so in fact you get less toxic substances into the lungs.

[MUSIC: Tangria Jazz Group, “Ethan’s Song” (from Mabene’s Eleven: Tunes for Two)]

DUBNER: In a 2010 study called “Drug Harms in the UK: A Multicriteria Decision Analysis,” Nutt and a group of colleagues tried to calculate the “harm score” of 20 different drug, not only alcohol and marijuana but heroin, meth, cocaine, LSD, and so on. They factored in mortality rate, the cost of dependence, the loss of relationships, injuries, crime, and they also looked at the costs to society in terms of health care, police and prison, and lost productivity. What’d they find? What would you guess was deemed the most harmful drug overall of these 20 drugs?

NUTT: It turns out that alcohol was the most harmful drug overall, largely because of the massive harms to society, the huge economic cost, the huge health care cost, the huge policing cost of alcohol to society. And cannabis scored less than half of the overall harms of alcohol.

DUBNER: Now keep in mind a few caveats. In this kind of calculation, the societal costs of alcohol are huge in part because alcohol is so readily available. It’s legal, it’s cheap, and for the most part society smiles upon it – compared to most of the other drugs on the list, which are illegal, not necessarily so cheap, and generally frowned upon. So while alcohol might have the highest “harm score,” that may be due in large part to the simple fact of its prevalence.

[MUSIC: Johnny Sangster, “Levanto Adventure”]

DUBNER: Now that said, the evidence is pretty compelling, that alcohol is harmful. So, coming up on Freakonomics Radio: what do you do about it? If the world just discovered alcohol, would you immediately ban it? Well, we’ve tried that before.

LEVITT: If something is worth fighting for, people are willing to fight.

DUBNER: Or: how about a different kind of alcohol – great taste, less killing.

NUTT: You’d have this safe alcohol that you could drink and have fun. But you could also take an antidote that would block its effects. So you would sober up within half an hour if you took a pill.


ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

[MUSIC: Johnny Sangster, “Thirsty Vines”]

DUBNER: Alright, so if alcohol and marijuana were both suddenly discovered, and we set out to weigh their relative dangers to society, you might conclude that alcohol at least is pretty dangerous. So you may think – hey, let’s just prohibit it. That’ll work, won’t it? Here’s the economist Jeffrey Miron again.

MIRON: So what I was interested in was whether prohibitions of substances like alcohol or drugs are effective in substantially reducing the use of the substance that’s prohibited. And the best sort of example that we have to look at is alcohol prohibition in the United States, which occurred between 1920 and 1933. The problem of course is there are no decent data on alcohol consumption during prohibition because the government that normally collects such data acted as though alcohol consumption wasn’t happening. Of course some of it was happening. The question was exactly how much.

DUBNER: Since Miron couldn’t get data that directly spoke to alcohol consumption, he looked for a proxy. It wasn’t  a perfect proxy, perhaps, but a useful one: cirrhosis of the liver, which is caused by alcohol abuse.

MIRON: And what you find is that alcohol prohibition seems to have had some effect in reducing alcohol use, maybe 10, 20, 30 percent. But it didn’t have an incredibly dramatic effect when alcohol prohibition was repealed, alcohol use did go up relative to various other factors one controls for, but again a moderate amount, say 20, 25 percent. It’s not as though we went from almost no consumption to some huge, you know, explosion. There was a modest increase in use.

[MUSIC: Crytzer’s Blue Rhythm Band, “Dickey’s Blues” (from Chasin’ the Blues)]

DUBNER: So not only did Prohibition not eliminate the use of alcohol – not by a long shot – but it had some rather grim unintended consequences.


LEVITT: Sure, I mean, prohibition was a time of amazing violence. The homicide rate in the U.S. in the late 1920’s was as high as it’s ever been, and, you know, two-to-three times higher than now. And the homicide rate fell dramatically after the end of prohibition…And…you know, it makes sense to me that in every setting, when you don’t have well-defined property rights and you don’t have legal structures around it, if something is worth fighting for, people are willing to fight. They’re willing to take tremendous risks and violence becomes the tool. Now my own belief is that, I think people will be surprised that within the U.S. I just don’t think that there is enough money in illegal marijuana to make people want to do a whole lot of killing. Now I understand that in Mexico and in other places there is probably a lot of violence around marijuana but my hunch is that you won’t see really any change at all in drug-related violence in the places where you legalize marijuana because I don’t think that’s why people have been killing each other in the first place. I think they have been killing themselves over cocaine and other drugs that are more profitable.

DUBNER: Levitt, you’ve got 4 kids, the oldest is what, 14?

LEVITT: Uh huh.

DUBNER: So, if you could control all four of your kids in the future and require that they could only consume one or the other, marijuana or alcohol, which would it be?

LEVITT: I think that I would have them consume alcohol and not marijuana. Because I think alcohol is just such an integral part of being an American. And I think that if you have sensible attitudes towards alcohol it can be a huge positive and doesn’t have to be a huge negative. And I would maybe give you a different answer…

DUBNER: If you lived in Holland?

LEVITT: Or in Holland, but especially in thirty years. In thirty years I’d probably give you a different answer because the role of marijuana in society might change, the role of alcohol might change. And it may be that if the social role of marijuana becomes very prominent and the hanging out with the wrong kind of people destructive role goes away; that the pure consumption of the marijuana might be better. But the consumption of the alcohol and the consumption of the marijuana are such a small part of what the social meaning of it is that I think it would be crazy to try to raise a bunch of kids who I didn’t ever want to touch alcohol and who I encouraged actively to be marijuana smokers.

DUBNER: Okay, so go then beyond then your family and society at large, does then the social benefit of alcohol outweigh or justify the social costs of alcohol, which strike me as being incredibly high. I mean no one is looking for a ban here, but as a way of thinking about how we regulate and allow different kinds of activities… I mean I think all of this gets caught up in moral posturing by everybody because alcohol and marijuana both seem to stand for a lot, but if we were talking about just different activities that weren’t a controlled substance, I think people would have a different view, because marijuana to some people seems pretty benign and alcohol to those same people seems potentially to have a lot of costs spread across society.

LEVITT: I’ve never done a calculation, but my hunch is that the benefits of alcohol are huge relative to the costs of alcohol. If you’re willing to count the utility that people get from using and abusing alcohol as part of your calculus. I think it’s not even close. I think that the joy and the pleasure that people get from alcohol, as evidenced by the amount that we drink and how central it is to everything we do, is just orders of magnitude bigger than the costs. I think marijuana that’s probably true too, we just don’t have as much information. But I doubt ever we’re going to get to a place where if we had a vote and we said you could only have one, alcohol or marijuana, that marijuana would ever win. Because I think alcohol, somehow for whatever reason of how we’ve evolved, the brain loves alcohol in a way that I’m not sure the brain loves marijuana.

[MUSIC: The Jaguars, “By By Mai Thai” (from The Jaguars)]

DUBNER: Well, we may find out just how much the brain loves marijuana, as it’s decriminalized in more places. We asked Jeffrey Miron what might happen as marijuana becomes more available – and if, say, some people substituted marijuana for alcohol.

MIRON: So several studies have looked at the following combinations of effects. If marijuana becomes legal and therefore more accessible and cheaper, and some people at least substitute from alcohol to marijuana, and if, as appears to be true, the negative effects on driving ability from marijuana are smaller, in no way zero, but certainly smaller, than those from alcohol then we should actually see fewer traffic fatalities, because some of the people who are driving under the influence would be driving under the influence of marijuana which seems to be less bad, and therefore we might see fatalities go down. And indeed, three or four studies over the past 20 years have found exactly that result. So there is this potentially beneficial externality from legalizing marijuana in inducing this substitution, which reduces traffic accidents.

DUBNER: But as Steve Levitt notes: we know that people love alcohol, side effects and all. So wouldn’t it be great if somehow we could have all the benefits without the costs? Remember David Nutt, the British psychiatrist who was fired for claiming that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana? He has some ideas about that.

NUTT: Most of my professional career, I have been trying to find ways of treating alcoholism and helping people deal with the problems of alcohol dependence and alcohol withdrawal, and trying to find an antidote to alcohol. And I realize now that’s impossible. And it occurred to me a while back that maybe we’re asking the wrong question, rather than try to solve the problem of alcohol, why don’t we find an alternative to alcohol which doesn’t cause problems, find a safe alternative, a drug which makes you pleasantly intoxicated, but which does not cause addiction, does not rot your brain, you liver or your guts, etc. And when you think about that, the way to do that is to find a substance where you had an antidote, so when you got to a party have fun and then take the antidote and drive home safely. And you could imagine that if that were available and everyone used it you would save 3 million deaths a year, which is more than malaria, tuberculosis, and meningitis put together. Wouldn’t that be a good thing? And that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to bring a rational approach to dealing with the problems of alcohol by getting rid of it and replacing it with a safe alternative.

DUBNER: This is something that David Nutt is actually working on – a synthetic alcohol, designed to mimic the effects of alcohol on the brain while minimizing all the downsides — hangovers, liver damage, and loss of coordination. In conjunction with this, Nutt and his colleagues have also been working on an alcohol antidote, a “sober pill.”

NUTT: So the idea would be you would have this safe alcohol that you could drink and have fun. But you could also take an antidote that would block its effects. So you would sober up within half an hour if you took a pill. And that would mean that you were perfectly, absolutely normal and you could drive home quite safely.

DUBNER: Now that, you’d have to admit, would be a real fantasy world.


Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Podcast Transcripts"
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Date: Tuesday, 15 Apr 2014 17:32

We have blogged and written extensively about the gender pay gap, much of which is not attributable to discrimination, as is commonly invoked. President Obama has taken up the cause; he recently signed two executive orders aimed at closing the gap.  Business Insider recently posted a state-by-state breakdown of the gender wage gap. It is interesting to look at but keep in mind the non-discriminatory factors that contribute to the gap, and therefore consider these numbers with some skepticism:

Wyoming has the biggest pay gap — the median male full-time worker made $51,932, and the median female full-time worker made $33,152. The male worker thus made 56.6% more than the female worker.

Washington, D.C. had the smallest gap — there, men make 11.0% more than women. Among the states, Maryland and Nevada had the smallest gaps, both at 17.2%.

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog, employment, gender ga..."
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Date: Tuesday, 15 Apr 2014 14:38

The new exhibition on the Vikings at the British Museum illustrates behavior along supply curves.  The local Anglo-Saxons decided that the best way to keep Viking raiders at bay was to buy them off—to pay tribute.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this extra payoff merely induced a movement up the supply curve of Viking raids, as more raiding parties realized that there was money to be made by raiding English villages. Perhaps this is a lesson for modernity: don’t negotiate with terrorists!


Author: "Daniel Hamermesh" Tags: "Featured Post, Freakonomics Blog, englan..."
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Date: Thursday, 10 Apr 2014 13:24

Former New York City Mayor Bloomberg at a MTA ceremony.  (Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York)

Former New York City Mayor Bloomberg at a MTA ceremony. (Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “’If Mayors Ruled the World.’” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

The episode expands on an idea from political theorist Benjamin Barber, whose latest book is called If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. Barber argues that cities are paragons of good governance – compared at least to nation-states – and that is largely due to their mayors. Mayors, Barber argues, are can-do people who inevitably cut through the inertia and partisanship that can plague state and federal governments. To that end, Barber would like to see a global “Parliament of Mayors,” to help solve the kind of big, borderless problems that national leaders aren’t so good at solving.

In the podcast, you’ll hear Stephen Dubner interview Barber. You’ll also hear from mayors all over the U.S., including Eric Garcetti (Los Angeles), Toni Harp (New Haven),  Richard Berry (Albuquerque), and Marty Walsh (Boston). Walsh gives us a concrete example (pun intended) of how being mayor is very different from being a state legislator:

WALSH: As legislator we process things, we work forward to an ultimate goal, but by the time we get to a final vote it’s quite a bit [of a slow process]. … As a mayor, we can make an impact immediately. You know one small thing, I was driving down the street and there was a big pothole in the street down on Park Street. I made a phone call and five minutes later it was filled.

That is ultimate power, isn’t it? Mayors do get stuff done! Dubner also talks to Ed Glaeser, the economist and author of Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Glaeser doesn’t love the idea of convening a parliament of mayors:

GLAESER: I support the idea of communication across cities, so I think sharing ideas certainly is a good idea. A parliament is by definition essentially a legislative branch. I think the beauty of mayors is that they’re deeply executive. So I’m not particularly eager to transform these wonderfully focused executives into parliamentarians.

Dubner also talks to Chris Smith, who writes about politics for New York Magazine. Smith tells us that the power of New York City’s mayor is vastly under-appreciated and underestimated:

SMITH: Short of declaring war, New York City’s mayor has a greater direct influence on more lives, I would say, than even a president.

New York’s mayors are so under-appreciated that we’ve all but forgotten one of the best: George McClellan. (Not that George McClellan; his son!) McClellan’s list of accomplishments include:

  • Building Grand Central Terminal
  • Presiding over the opening of the subway
  • Taking a joyride on that inaugural subway trip
  • Licensing the first taxicab
  • Building 19 new fire houses, 110 school buildings, and 35 miles of new wharfage
  • Securing 277 acres of park space
  • Finishing construction of the New York Public Library
  • Opening the Queensboro and Manhattan bridges
  • Installing the world’s first high-pressure water service to fight fires

Yes, many of these projects were initiated by his predecessors — but still, what a closer! Hats off to you, Mr. Mayor.

Author: "Suzie Lechtenberg" Tags: "Featured Radio Post, Freakonomics Blog, ..."
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Date: Thursday, 10 Apr 2014 13:01

[MUSIC: The Jaguars; “Jaguar Soul” (from My Generation)]

Hey podcast listeners. Our new book, Think Like a Freak, will be published on May 12 — as a hardcover,  e-book, audio book, large-print, you name it. And if you pre-order it in any format, from any store, you can get the first chapter now, delivered to your e-mail inbox. Just go to Freakonomics.com/sneakpeek. There’s a lot more information at Freakonomics.com, including our book-tour schedule. It starts in New York City, where Levitt and I will speak and sign books at Symphony Space, and a Barnes & Nobles. We’ll also visit Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, London, and the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts in Wales..  Again, all the details are on Freakonomics.com.

[MUSIC: Glenn Crytzer’s Savoy Seven, “My Blue Apples” (from Focus Pocus)]

Stephen J. DUBNER: Chris Smith writes about politics for New York Magazine.

DUBNER: You’ve been at New York Magazine for how many years?

Chris SMITH: Since 1988.

DUBNER: Who would you say is the most, let’s call it, influential mayor in NYC history?

SMITH: Oh, easily LaGuardia. Both because of the time he was mayor and the fact that so many mayors, not just New York City, try to model themselves after him.


DUBNER: Fiorello LaGuardia was New York’s mayor from 1934 to 1945, a long and eventful period — the Great Depression, the Second World War. To lift the spirit of the citizenry, LaGuardia would sing to them; he’d read them the funny pages.


DUBNER: How about another iconic New York City mayor?


SMITH: Giuliani makes a good case in terms of saving the city, at arriving at a pivotal time in the city’s history, inheriting terrible crime statistics and making the city governable again in a law and order sense, and a lot of that is being imitated, the data analysis. The data driven approach to crime that he and Bill Bratton, then and now the police commissioner introduced, has been imitated all over the world.


[MUSIC: Das Vibenbass, “Reference Check” (from Fodakis)]

DUBNER: Because Chris Smith knows so much about New York City politics, I wanted to see if I could stump him. I wanted to know if he could name another of New York’s most accomplished mayors.

DUBNER: Alright, let me read to you a list of accomplishments from one of our past mayors. This person built Grand Central Terminal, still stands; presided over the opening of the subway, still runs; licensed the first taxicab, they’re still going; built 19 new fire house, 110 school buildings, including 11 new high schools, built 35 miles of new wharfage, including 51 new piers; any idea who that master builder was?

SMITH: Hmmm. John Hylan, Seth Low…I don’t know.

DUBNER: Both good guesses. Any more? You got any more guesses?

SMITH: Vincent Impellitteri.

DUBNER: Man… you…before him…

SMITH: No. Those are colorful names, but bad guesses.

DUBNER: So who is the man who did all that – and who also secured 277 acres of park space, finished construction of the New York Public Library, opened the Queensboro and Manhattan bridges, and installed the world’s first high-pressure water service to fight fires?

DUBNER: George McClellan.



DUBNER: Do you have him in your baseball collection of great New York City Mayors?

SMITH: “George Mac” I call him.

DUBNER: Okay, so most people haven’t heard of Mayor George McClellan. His father, also George McClellan, was a Civil War general. The younger McClellan was mayor of New York from 1904 to 1909, just one term. And look at everything he got done in one term! Now, granted, many of those projects were initiated by his predecessors. But even so: what a closer this guy was! George McClellan’s fingerprints are all over the city — and yet he’s largely forgotten.

[MUSIC: Clay Ross, “Sixth City Waltz” (from Entre Nous)]

DUBNER: Today’s program is about mayors – how they get stuff done, out of necessity – and yet, unlike certain more visible chief executives, they’re often overlooked. Chris Smith tells us that people even underestimate the power of New York City’s mayor.

SMITH: Short of declaring war, New York City’s mayor has a greater direct influence on more lives, I would say, than even a president.

DUBNER: On today’s show, you’ll hear from mayors all over the country:

Richard BERRY: The Rio Grande runs right through Albuquerque, so we’ve got the river. We’ve got the longest urban stretch of Route 66 in the country, so a lot of great vibe here.

Eric GARCETTI: We have the number one airport in the world for origination and destination. The top port in the country. The largest municipal utility…

DUBNER: Okay, now you’re just pissing us off here, I have to say!

Marty WALSH: I think the Red Sox are going to win the division.


WALSH: I do hope the Yankees are better his year, because it’s not as much fun winning the World Series when the Yankees are so bad.

DUBNER: And we ask whether cities are a good template for the way government should work.

Toni HARP: A city is where you come face to face with all of the possibilities and the problems that are presented in our country.

Ed GLAESER: I think perhaps most dramatically about five years ago we crossed the threshold with more than 50 percent of humanity now lives in cities.

Benjamin BARBER: If you’re down, if you’re feeling dispirited, if you’re feeling nothing works, have a second look at cities.


ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “Soul Slaw” (from Instrumental, Action, Soul)]

DUBNER: Today’s show is about mayors.

DUBNER: Okay, so we are, we happen to be in New York City.

GARCETTI: I’ve heard of it.

DUBNER: You’ve heard of it, thank you. And I’ve heard of  yours.

DUBNER: Eric Garcetti is the mayor of Los Angeles.

DUBNER: So you went to LSE, you are a jazz pianist, a photographer, you are a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve. So I read your qualifications, I have to…Please don’t take this the wrong way, aren’t you deeply overqualified to be a mayor?

GARCETTI: You know, I think a mayor has to be ready for almost anything. I mean the only thing that’s predictable in this job is its unpredictability. You might be talking to a homeless resident of your city, somebody who’s living on the streets and then meet the Crown Prince of Spain right afterwards. So you have to have a pretty wide range of experiences. So I still think I’m under-qualified.

DUBNER: We talked to Benjamin Barber who’s an academic, a political theorist, who wrote a book called If Mayors Ruled the World. I understand you may have read the book, or no?

GARCETTI: You know, I just sleep with it right next to me to inspire me. But yes I know Benjamin well, he’s come and visited me out here.

BARBER: Benjamin Barber. I’m a senior research scholar at City University of New York, professor emeritus at Rutgers University, a political theorist, and author of 18 books, the most recent of which is If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities.

DUBNER: In the book, Barber argues that cities are paragons of good governance – potentially, at least, and at least compared to nation-states – and that is largely due to their mayors. Mayors, Barber says, are inherently bipartisan – they can’t afford not to be – and that above all else, they are focused on solving actual problems. Mayors, of course, love this book.

BARBER: You know, Mayor Walsh, the first day in office, there is a picture in the front of the Boston Globe he’s sitting with a copy of that book right in front of him. Mayor Garcetti has it, Mayor de Blasio has it. Mayors are reading it; it’s a great thing.

DUBNER: What is it that Benjamin Barber so admires about the modern mayor?

BARBER: There’s a great story I tell of Teddy Kollek, the long-timer mayor of Jerusalem, who’s a Zionist and quite one-sided in his views but had to deal with a city full of Jew, Muslims, and Christians, and he tells the story on himself of the day in the 1980s in which Jewish rabbis, and Muslim imams, and Christian prelates were in his office arguing, as they often did about access to the holy sites in Jerusalem. And they were ranting at each other, and going on and on, and he finally interrupted them and he said, “Gentlemen, gentlemen, spare me your sermons, and I will fix your sewers.” And that is a telling point about what mayors do. They fix sewers, they keep the trains running, they get the snow plowed, they pick up the garbage, and that is their job. So pragmatism is essential.

[MUSIC: Pearl Django, “Dragonfly” (from Swing 48)]

DUBNER: Okay, Mr. Mayor?


DUBNER: Hey, Stephen Dubner. How are you?

WALSH: Stephen how are you?

DUBNER: Marty Walsh became Boston’s mayor this past January. I talked to him shortly after his first day in office.

DUBNER: Alright, so first of all, congratulations. How do you like being mayor so far?

WALSH: My five weeks and one day have been great.

DUBNER: Before he became mayor, Walsh served in the Massachusetts State Legislature for 16 years.

DUBNER: Tell me something you’ve learned so far about the reach of the mayor’s power that you hadn’t quite anticipated.

WALSH: Very different than being a state legislator. As legislator we kind of, we process things, we work forward toward an ultimate goal, but by the time we get to a final vote it’s quite a bit…As a mayor we can make an impact immediately. You can, you know one small thing, I was driving down the street and there was a big pothole in the street down on Park Street. I made a phone call and five minutes later it was filled.

HARP: It’s kind of where the rubber hits the road.

DUBNER: Toni Harp is the new mayor of New Haven, Connecticut. Like Marty Walsh, she spent many years in the state legislature. Also like Walsh, she appreciates her new job.

HARP: Well, you know, I think the difference I that in the senate you set policy, you can even, you write a budget, but you actually don’t do implementation

DUBNER: Harp didn’t like not being able to implement. She says she’d often spend a lot of time and effort on a project, getting it funded for instance, only to watch it fizzle out once it got out of her hands.

HARP: Well it’s frustrating, you kind of have an idea of how you see it rolling out, how you see it working and then to find out later that for one reason or another sometimes the money doesn’t even get to the street at all.

DUBNER: The same goes for Richard Berry, mayor of Albuquerque. He, too, was a state legislator.

BERRY: As a legislator it’s much more deliberative. There’s a lot more policy discussions. And as a mayor you do have the ability to be more agile and make things happen quicker. For example, recently we were able to craft, put forward a bill to prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors in Albuquerque. We were able to get that done much quicker because we didn’t have to wait for the legislative session and in the process that goes with that. So, I think the agility is a big part of it. And you can bring initiatives to play and get them implemented quicker, and more effectively, and you can do a lot of bold things. There’s a reason that mayors love their job. There’s a reason that people are turning to mayors to get things done, because mayors have shown their propensity to get things done.

[MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “82nd Ave Strut” (from Blueprint of Soul)]

DUBNER: Now, one reason that mayors look so good to Benjamin Barber is that our federal government  looks so bad: inert, mired in gridlock, outdated. In his book, he writes that the very idea of the nation-state is anachronistic.

BARBER: It argues that nation-states, even where they work well, even where they’re not frozen in time, even where they’re not polarized and incapable of taking action, were born in an era of national societies where the problems the world faced were mostly contained by national jurisdictions.

DUBNER: As we’ve argued before on this program, the President of the United States isn’t nearly as powerful as many people might imagine, or hope him to be. But it goes beyond the straight comparison of president to mayor. As Barber points out, city governments are more nimble even when dealing with complicated issues. Eric Garcetti, L.A.’s mayor, says he’s seen this firsthand with climate-change policy.

GARCETTI: The C40 is actually the 40 cities in the world that are combatting climate change and doing it probably more effectively than the G20. I do think that there is going to be an increasingly robust space for cities to talk to each other. I always like to say that mayors are a band of thieves. We like to steal the very best from one another. I watch what a mayor in London is doing and say that would be great here. You know, we stopped smoking in L.A. and then New York did it. There’s bike share in New York, we’ll steal that and do it in L.A. So these things I think really are global. Cities are much more nimble, they’re ready to act, and they have the platforms to do it in a way that national governments can’t.

[MUSIC: Pailboy, “Shut Up”]

DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: if mayors are such great, hands-on executives, why have so few of them made it to the White House?

SMITH: You make a lot of enemies as New York City mayor. Even if you are successful, you tend to piss a lot of people off.

DUBNER: And: what if mayors ruled the world?

GLAESER: I support the idea of communication across cities, so I think sharing ideas certainly is a good idea. A parliament is by definition essentially a legislative branch. I think the beauty of mayors is that they’re deeply executive. So I’m not particularly eager to transform these, you know, wonderfully focused executives into parliamentarians.


ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

[MUSIC: Jonathan Geer, “Sidewinders”]

DUBNER: Okay, here’s a quiz. How many U.S. Presidents started out as mayors? Fifteen? Twelve? How about… three: Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge. Why so few? Here’s Chris Smith again, the political writer from New York Magazine.

SMITH: Probably a couple of reasons, that mayors because they have to pick up the trash, and run police departments and do a lot of the quotidian, important things tend to be more focused on managerial qualities than grand visions, the kind of things that play well in presidential campaigns.

DUBNER: Ah, in campaigns, yeah.

SMITH: Second, particularly in the case of New York City mayors you make a lot of enemies as New York City mayor. Even if you are very successful, you tend to piss a lot of people off. And that baggage, you know, when you take it to a Democratic Party, or Republican Party in rarer instances, just in political terms I think that’s held back a lot of New York mayors.

DUBNER: That’s interesting. Is it easier to not tick people off as a governor of a state whether it’s New York or elsewhere? I mean, obviously governors…

SMITH: Sure.

DUBNER: Why’s that?

SMITH: Both because you’re interacting less in the day-to-day lives of your constituents, also because you also generally, you know, in major Northeastern states certainly have to balance a lot of different, both political and practical desires. You know, upstate New York, very different than New York City.

DUBNER: So that is interesting just the idea that a characteristic of a mayor whether successful mayor or not is someone who inevitably will do things that will upset people because that is the job, versus…now, wouldn’t you think that…

SMITH: It is also a harder job to succeed.

DUBNER: Because the measurables are more measurable, in a way?

SMITH: Exactly, yes.

DUBNER: You’d think that the traits make someone successful as a mayor would be incredibly valuable, however, at a state or federal level. Being an executive getting things done, understanding that you are going to tick off certain constituencies in order to serve the greater good. And yet, it seems like when we look at this moment in time at least in the U.S. at state and federal governance we see on one hand people who love to shout at their enemies across the aisle, but it’s not like they are shouting in service of great accomplishment, are they? It seems like if you had to measure what’s getting done on a daily basis I’d think that most mayors are getting a whole lot more done than most governors and federal officials, yeah?

SMITH: Yeah, but this is probably another reason why mayors, particularly in New York City, haven’t gone on to higher office historically, is that the conditions that allow them to be autocratic here don’t exist at the national level. It is very much more at the national level about building some, you hope, sense of compromise. You know you’ve got to work with the Senate and the House in a way that doesn’t exist at the local level. And so to Obama’s frustration, obviously, he’d like to operate more like a mayor, more sort of unilaterally. And so maybe that’s the quality that does not transfer very well.

DUBNER: Okay, so to be fair, if I would force you to answer the question, would you prefer that the system works the way that it does which is that mayors are fairly autocratic and the higher you go the less you become so because that’s the way our governing system was built, or would say, you know, it would be kind of great if as Benjamin Barber argues, mayors should rule the world, because these are the people who are trained and experienced in executing and getting stuff done and balancing different likes and dislikes and constituencies. Is it necessarily a good thing that the president, for instance, is a figure of compromise or do you think, from your perch as a political observer, that it would be kind of great if the mayoral autocracy could be imported a little bit into the White House.

SMITH: Yeah, it would be great if it were an autocrat I agreed with. Yes, certainly the blocking and tackling of government, the ability to make bureaucracies work is a quality that you would love to see taken from a city hall to the White House. Ideally, I guess, if you could come up with a bunch of cabinet officials who had those mayoral qualities while you had a president who was a consensus builder who enabled those people to do their jobs, that would be the ideal setup.

[MUSIC: Patrick Coen, “Bouncy Harlem Jazz”]

DUBNER: So, what is the “ideal” setup? Ed Glaeser is an economist at Harvard. We’ve talked to him before on this program. He is a great talker – full paragraphs just leap from his mouth, fully formed, enunciated like a 19th-century debating champion. He’s also the author of a book called Triumph of the City. Notably, the title of the book is not Triumph of the Nation-State.

GLAESER: The remarkable thing about city leadership is that the problems are very, very tangible. The scope of powers tends to be fairly limited, and it’s limited both by law and by the ability of firms and people to leave, by the small geographic size of these areas. And that means running a city is very different from running a county. On top of that, mayors tend to be very constrained as to what they can do. They don’t set their own tax rates. Not even with the aid of city council. Cities are always and everywhere in the U.S. creatures ultimately of state government. And in some cases the feds exercise some form of oversight.

DUBNER: So you say that, and we understand this, that the powers and duties of the mayor are constrained, especially compared to someone like the president. But that would seemingly confer its own set of advantages as well as disadvantages. And I understand that comparing even five mayors to one president is entirely an apples to oranges comparison. But the argument that we want to discuss today is whether a mayor by nature of his or her job description and limits is in some way in a position to govern better, more efficiently, more rationally, than the head of state or federal governments.

GLAESER: You know, I certainly consider myself friendly to that proposition. But I think as far as actually thinking about what we mean in terms of transforming a president to be more mayor like, we would essentially mean that we would be foregoing all those contentious things that Barack Obama and the Republicans in the House are arguing over, right? I mean, we would be foregoing the possibility of the President trying to act on the minimum wage, or foregoing the possibility of the President trying to create radical new healthcare legislation. All of those things would be impossible if we suddenly said that we wanted our presidents to be like mayors. There is, however, of course a beauty to what mayors do. They have very clear deliverables like clear snow, like clean streets, like public safety. And they have a clear set of tools for achieving those goals. That means they are relatively easy to grade at the end of the day, relative to a president, and they can stay focused on making sure that commutes into work are human. So I think one piece of evidence which I think is a very nice one that corroborates this view is the work of Fernando Carrera and Joe Gyourko at the University of Pennsylvania who find that it really doesn’t matter, this was a paper that I edited when I was still at the Quarterly Journal of Economics, it really doesn’t matter whether or not a Republican or a Democrat is elected mayor, they seem to do more or less the same thing. And this is of course done with a regression discontinuity approach, which just means we’re basically comparing cities where 51 percent of the voters voted Republican with cities in which 51 percent of the voters voted for Democrats, so they are otherwise were pretty identical. And having a Republican or Democrat in office makes very little difference at the local level whereas of course it does at the state level and even more so at the federal government level. And that’s precisely because there’s no Democratic or Republican way to clean the streets, as the old saying goes.

DUBNER: So the book that Benjamin Barber’s written, If Mayors Ruled the World, I don’t know how familiar you are with the book, or at least its thesis.

GLAESER: A bit, certainly, I’ve read some excerpts of it certainly.

DUBNER: So I think the attraction of this idea that mayors should “rule the world,” whether we mean that metaphorically or in some tiny way literally, is you know, the idea that mayors have to be responsible to voters if for no other reason than that their potential losses are so much more tangible than a federal or state official. So I get that, and I think that resonates with anyone. We all want the people that we elect or, you know, choose, hire even, to be accountable, so if that’s the case why is there such a disconnect between the municipal, and state, and federal levels? Is it just the way the system was built a few hundred years ago and it’s evolved kind of stochastically and we just have to deal with it? Or, is there some, you know, is there some greater or lesser reason for why we need this real accountability and satisfaction on the local level and yet we don’t on the federal or state level?

GLAESER: Right, so if we think about the history of this the local governments really came first, the local and state governments. But even though they are politically beholden to the states, the rise of large-scale municipal spending preceded the rise of large-scale state spending, which in both preceded the rise of large-scale federal spending. One fact that I’ve repeated often is that at the start of the 20th century cities and towns were spending as much on water as the federal government was spending on anything except for the post office and the army. So this was just water expenditures at the city and town level, which tells you just how big city governments were. And they were big, and taxpayers signed off on their size precisely because they were delivering something that was very, very tangible. Then you have the rise of the federal government. We can say this is 1900-1960, which is associated with at least two things, one of which is the increased role of the U.S. in the world, two World Wars and the Cold War, both of which were large-scale increases in the size of the federal government. And then the second of which was first under Teddy Roosevelt and then under Woodrow Wilson, and then under FDR, this increasing role the federal government played in being an against recession and an agent for fairness at the national level, an agent of fighting inequality, an agent of trying to create a social security system. So if you think of those two things as being the fundamental reasons why the feds came about, and perhaps to a lesser extent doing a little bit around transportation in the Eisenhower years. But really the big things were this sort of redistribution, anti-recessionary thing, and the wars and diplomacy thing. Both of those things, while they can be unbelievably expensive and potentially incredibly important, they’re just not amenable to the same degree of precise accounting that we have for these things which came first, for these absolutely necessary things that cities do. So I guess I have trouble imagining how you’re ever going to put either diplomacy or debates over redistribution, debates of Social Security, debates over Medicare in the same league as you can in terms of cities.

[MUSIC: Pailboy, “Meters Dre”]

DUBNER: Benjamin Barber, in his book If Mayors Ruled the World, argues we should create aglobal parliament of mayors” to help solve problems that national governments aren’t so good at solving. Ed Glaeser isn’t so enthusiastic.

GLAESER: I support the idea of communication across cities, so I think sharing ideas certainly is a good idea. A parliament is by definition essentially a legislative branch. I think the beauty of mayors is that they’re deeply executive. So I’m not particularly eager to transform these, you know, wonderfully focused executives into parliamentarians. But the spirit of having more discussions across cities, particularly to share ideas about how to improve the basics of city government is certainly a good one

DUBNER: In a way, though, this global parliament of mayors is already happening. As Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti tells us, mayors already get together regularly to swap ideas. Garcetti, like Ed Glaeser, sees cities leading the way — and he thinks that Washington sees that too. Garcetti recently visited the White House with 16 other new mayors.

GARCETTI: I was one of the few that had been sworn in, but the incoming mayors from Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Seattle, and so on and so forth, and I said to the President then, you know, we’re looking for a partnership, if this was the 70’s and 60’s and the urban centers of America were burning, we probably would have come to Washington and said, ‘Washington please save America’s cities.’ Today we come as America’s cities seeking to save Washington because things are so broken at the national level. We can’t afford to be partisan at the local level. People want their snow plowed, their trash picked up, their streets safe, they want to have a chance at a job, a decent place to live, and it’s not 3,000 miles away or a few hundred miles away at the state capital, it’s here, it’s now. So in that sense mayors have to rule the world, they have to make that change. If not, you’ll get tossed out of office, and at the end of the day it’s more about being a chief executive than kind of a commander in chief.

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Podcast Transcripts"
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Date: Tuesday, 08 Apr 2014 15:42

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 11.26.07 AMMy mathematically inclined readers are cordially invited to enroll in “6.SFMx: Street-Fighting Math,” which starts today on EdX. Like most (all?) MOOC courses, it is free and open to world, as are all the course materials.

So far, I have learned that teaching an entirely online course requires far more effort than teaching in person. Maybe by a factor of 10. Partly, it is the difference between talking to a friend on the phone—you just pick up the phone and start talking—compared to writing a long letter that needs to be thought out. To this difference you add that 10,000 others will also read and depend on the letter. You get nervous about making all the pieces right. They never will be, so you never rest easy.

Teaching online forces you to make your tacit knowledge explicit. Tacit knowledge is hard to share, so this process of explication is difficult. Imagine writing down how to tie a shoelace for someone who will learn how only from your written directions. If you try it, you may wonder how you ever managed to tie a shoelace. But I hope that the extra effort helps students learn much more than they would in person, and results in a permanent repository of teaching material for others to reuse.

Author: "Sanjoy Mahajan" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog, Mathematics, online c..."
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Date: Monday, 07 Apr 2014 20:03

BBC News reports the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a school dropout in rural India who invented a technology that could vastly improve reproductive health for women. The user-friendly technology relies on simple machines to produce sanitary pads at a low cost, a boon for women unwilling or unable to pay for the higher-priced sanitary pads in stores.

[Muruganantham] discovered that hardly any women in the surrounding villages used sanitary pads – fewer than one in 10. His findings were echoed by a 2011 survey by AC Nielsen, commissioned by the Indian government, which found that only 12% of women across India use sanitary pads.

Muruganantham says that in rural areas, the take-up is far less than that. He was shocked to learn that women don’t just use old rags, but other unhygienic substances such as sand, sawdust, leaves and even ash.

Women who do use cloths are often too embarrassed to dry them in the sun, which means they don’t get disinfected. Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene – it can also affect maternal mortality.

Unable to get good data or volunteers to test his products, Muruganantham tested the pads himself. Ultimately, he devised a method that allows women to create and distribute the pads themselves.

Four-and-a-half years later, he succeeded in creating a low-cost method for the production of sanitary towels. The process involves four simple steps. First, a machine similar to a kitchen grinder breaks down the hard cellulose into fluffy material, which is packed into rectangular cakes with another machine.

The cakes are then wrapped in non-woven cloth and disinfected in an ultraviolet treatment unit. The whole process can be learned in an hour.

Muruganantham’s goal was to create user-friendly technology. The mission was not just to increase the use of sanitary pads, but also to create jobs for rural women.

Muruganantham’s design has since won a national innovation award, and inspired a documentary about his project. He plans to expand to over 100 countries.

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog, development, health, ..."
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Date: Monday, 07 Apr 2014 17:56
Local elections in Khost province, Afghanistan. (Photo: isafmedia)

Local elections in Khost province, Afghanistan. (Photo: isafmedia)

A new working paper (abstractPDF) by Eli Berman, Michael Callen, Clark Gibson, and James D. Long looks at the effects of election interventions in fragile states, specifically Afghanistan. The results are encouraging:

International development agencies invest heavily in institution building in fragile states, including expensive interventions to support democratic elections. Yet little evidence exists on whether elections enhance the domestic legitimacy of governments. Using the random assignment of an innovative election fraud-reducing intervention in Afghanistan, we find that decreasing electoral misconduct improves multiple survey measures of attitudes toward government, including: (1) whether Afghanistan is a democracy; (2) whether the police should resolve disputes; (3) whether members of parliament provide services; and (4) willingness to report insurgent behavior to security forces.

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog, development, election..."
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Date: Monday, 07 Apr 2014 15:01
(Photo: Emilian Robert Vicol)

(Photo: Emilian Robert Vicol)

A Freakonomics Radio listener named Kevin wrote in response to our recent episode called “Why Are Japanese Homes Disposable?” First, here’s a quick summary of that episode:

It turns out that half of all homes in Japan are demolished within 38 years — compared to 100 years in the U.S.  There is virtually no market for pre-owned homes in Japan, and 60 percent of all homes were built after 1980. In Jiro Yoshida’s estimation, while land continues to hold value, physical homes become worthless within 30 years. Other studies have shown this to happen in as little as 15 years.

And here’s what Kevin had to say:

I used to work building really expensive houses in Canada. The really rich people would buy A-grade lumber to build their houses, which would otherwise go to building furniture or things where the quality of the lumber really “matters.” Good lumber is nice to work with but it’s not really necessary to put perfectly straight studs in your walls. Any good house framer could tell you that as long as you accommodate the slight imperfections in the wood and pick the right pieces for the right purpose, it is fine.

Anyway, there were a few houses I worked on where we got J-grade lumber, which is lumber that is destined for Japan. It is a grade above A-grade that you can’t even buy at a lumber yard. You have to know someone at the sawmill and buy it directly from there. The J-grade lumber is perfect. You don’t have to check for anything because it is all straight and knot-free. You could make beautiful furniture with it if you were inclined. We were making houses that were designed to last at least 100 years at least. It’s unfortunate then, that all the best lumber is going into houses that will be demolished in 38 years.

I think the argument was that the cost of shipping the lumber was at least the cost of the lumber itself, so it made sense to buy the best lumber possible considering the high transport costs. Maybe it has something to do with currency differences as well or maybe it takes less lumber to build the smaller houses. Regardless, the best lumber in Canada (and likely the U.S. northwest) goes to Japan so they can throw it away in 38 years. Thank you, capitalism.

Author: "Stephen J. Dubner" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog, Freakonomics Radio, H..."
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Date: Monday, 07 Apr 2014 13:26

Racked interviews entrepreneur and professional line-sitter Robert Samuel.  Samuels started his line-sitting venture, Same Old Line Dudes (SOLD Inc.), as the iPhone 5 was launched:

I was an employee at AT&T, and I lost my job. I wanted to supplement my income because I used to sell iPhones, and this time I wasn’t going to be able to sell them and make a big commission check. I live a few blocks from the Apple store on 14th Street, so I said, “Let me wait in line for somebody else and make them happy.”

The guy that hired me cancelled and said he wasn’t going to use me—he was just going to get it online but that he was still going to pay me. He paid me $100 and I resold the spot and made another $100, and then I called my friends and told them to come on down, because I just made $200 standing in one spot on a weekday afternoon.

They came down and took up spaces, but after a while they got tired and went upstairs to my house and hung out, and I ended up selling one of their spots. I also sold milk crates for $5 a piece that I had in my house. At this point, the line was getting long and people didn’t want to stand, and some people didn’t want to sit on cardboard on the floor, so my milk crates came in handy at $5 a pop. That’s $325.

Samuel has waited in line for everything from iPhones to cronuts to Isabel Marant‘s H&M line. He attributes his success, in part, to a phenomenon he calls “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out): “Especially [in] New York, you have friends and you’re hanging out and it’s like, ‘Did you see that new exhibit at MoMA?’ ‘Do you know what a Cronut is?’”

(HT: Marginal Revolution)

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog, jobs, psychology"
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Date: Friday, 04 Apr 2014 19:30

A new paper by graduate students David Broockman and Josh Kalla tackles an eternal, oft-debated question: does money buy influence? Here’s the abstract:

Concern that lawmakers grant preferential treatment to individuals because they have contributed to political campaigns has long occupied jurists, scholars, and the public. However, the effects of campaign contributions on legislators’ behavior have proven notoriously difficult to assess. We report the first randomized field experiment on the topic. In the experiment, a political organization attempted to schedule meetings between 191 Members of Congress and their constituents who had contributed to political campaigns. However, the organization randomly assigned whether it informed legislators’ offices that individuals who would attend the meetings were contributors. Congressional offices made considerably more senior officials available for meetings when offices were informed the attendees were donors, with senior officials attending such meetings more than three times as often (p < 0.01). Influential policymakers thus appear to make themselves much more accessible to individuals because they have contributed to campaigns, even in the absence of quid pro quo arrangements. These findings have significant implications for ongoing legal and legislative debates. The hypothesis that individuals can command greater attention from influential policymakers by contributing to campaigns has been among the most contested explanations for how financial resources translate into political power. The simple but revealing experiment presented here elevates this hypothesis from extensively contested to scientifically supported.

“Most Americans can’t afford to contribute to campaigns in meaningful amounts, while those who can have very different priorities than the broader public,” the authors explained in an interview with the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage blog.  ”Concern that campaign donations facilitate the wealthy’s well-documented greater influence with legislators has long inspired reformers to make changes to the system of campaign finance. Our results support their concerns.”

(HT: The Daily Dish)

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog, money, politics"
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Date: Friday, 04 Apr 2014 16:52

Last December, thousands of high school sophomores and juniors learned the results of the 2013 Preliminary SAT (PSAT) test.  The juniors’ test scores will be used to determine whether they qualify as semifinalists for the prestigious National Merit Scholarship, which in turn makes them eligible for a host of automatic college scholarships.  (Sophomores take the test just as practice.)

The juniors will have to wait to find out for sure if they qualify until September, just before they begin submitting applications to colleges across the country.  But it is fairly straightforward to predict, based on their scores and last year’s cutoffs, whether they will qualify as semifinalists.

Many students would be surprised to learn that qualification depends not only on how high they score, but also on where they go to school.   The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) sets different qualifying cutoffs for each state to “ensure that academically talented young people from all parts of the United States are included in this talent pool.”  They have not disclosed any specific criteria for setting the state cutoffs.

A high school student’s chances of receiving the award can depend crucially on his or her state of residence.  Last year, students in West Virginia needed only a 203 to qualify as a semifinalist (scores range from 60-240), while students from Texas needed a 219 and students from Washington, D.C. a 224.  Nationally, the West Virginia score was in the 97thpercentile of scores, while the Washington DC score was at the 99.5th percentile based on a mean score of 143 and a standard deviation of 31.

I’ve crudely estimated that because of this state cutoff discrimination, approximately 15% of students (about 2,400 students a year) who are awarded semifinalist status have lower scores than other students who were not semifinalists merely due to their geographic location.  Troublesomely, I also found that states with larger minority populations tend to have higher cutoffs.

Instead of just complaining, I have partnered with an extraordinary high-school sophomore from New Jersey named India Unger-Harquail to try to do something about it.

We’ve just launched a new website, AcadiumScholar.org.  You can go to site, enter a score, and it will quickly tell you the states where your score would have qualified you as an NMSC semifinalist.

But wait, there’s more.  The site also offers to certify qualified students based on a national standard of merit.  If you represent and warrant to us that you received a PSAT score meeting the minimum cutoff in at least one state (and you give us the opportunity to try to verify the accuracy of your score with NMSC), we’ll give you the right to describe yourself as an “Acadium Scholar.”  We’ve separately applied to the USPTO to registrar that phrase as a certification mark (in parallel fashion to my earlier “fair employment mark”).

Instead of the yes-or-no signal offered by the NMSC, we’ll also certify students based on the number of states in which they would have qualified as semifinalists.  For example, a student who scored a 211 could be certified to describe herself as a “19-state Acadium Scholar.”

Our certification allows:

·         A student from a strong cutoff-state, like Texas, who scores a 218 (just missing the Lone Star qualifying cutoff of 219) to say nonetheless that he’s a 41-state Acadium Scholar.

·         A student from a weak cutoff state, like North Dakota, who scores an extraordinary 235 on the exam to say that she is a 50-state Acadium Scholar.

We’re even letting sophomores use their scores to certify so that all the pressure isn’t on junior year.  There are also some sophomores who may have scored ten points better in their sophomore than their junior year.  Now those students can certify as Acadium Scholars based on their higher scores.

Neither India nor I think that this location-based discrimination is the most momentous issue facing our nation.  And we don’t think there’s a single correct definition of merit. We’re just offering another way to measure merit—one that ignores the geographic boundaries within our country. Many people are surprised to learn that the “National Merit Scholarship” is really a state merit award, and not so “National” at all.

If AcadiumScholar.com receives more than a few hundred visits we’ll be surprised.  But we’d like to throw it back to you, Freakonomics nation, to guess how interesting this idea will be to Americans.  I’ll send a signed copy of Super Crunchers to whomever posts the best guess about how many people will post a score in the home-page widget before July 4th in the next week. Happy guessing!

[Don’t be confused.  The Acadium Scholar site is not affiliated in any way with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation or the PSAT/NMSQT.]

Author: "Ian Ayres" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog, SAT, scholarship"
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Date: Friday, 04 Apr 2014 15:27
(Photo: 5chw4r7z)

(Photo: 5chw4r7z)

The Economist analyzes the microeconomics of Uber’s controversial “surge” pricing model, in which users are charged significantly higher prices during high-demand times:

There is some evidence Uber’s surge pricing is improving taxi markets. The firm says drivers are sensitive to price, so that the temptation to earn more is getting more Uber drivers onto the roads at antisocial hours. In San Francisco the number of private cars for hire has shot up, Uber says. This suggests surge pricing has encouraged the number of taxis to vary with demand, with the market getting bigger during peak hours.

However, the inflexibility of Uber’s matchmaking fee, a fixed 20% of the fare, means that it may fail to optimize the matching of demand and supply. In quiet times, when fares are low, it may work well. Suppose it links lots of potential passengers willing to pay $20 for a journey with drivers happy to travel for $15. A 20% ($4) fee leaves both sides content. But now imagine a Friday night, with punters willing to pay $100 for a ride, and drivers happy to take $90: there should be scope for a deal, but Uber’s $20 fee means such journeys won’t happen.

A better option for Uber, according to The Economist, might be a flat monthly membership fee for drivers, which would “generate revenue without creating a price wedge that gets in the way of matches.”

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog, supply and demand, ta..."
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