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Date: Thursday, 24 Jul 2014 18:02

We routinely hear from people who’ve heard about our Freakonomics Radio podcast, but feel somewhat shut out from the podcasting world because they don’t use an iPhone or iTunes. So here are some alternative options:

1) For Android Users

We’ve heard great things about Pocket Casts, which, for $3.99, syncs your favorite podcasts and keeps them backed up. You can also stream it to your Chromecast. Pocket Casts also works for Apple devices.

2) Windows Users

You actually don’t need a third-party app to stream, download, or subscribe to podcasts. It’s super simple: here are instructions. If you use a Windows phone, you can download the Podcast Lounge app to subscribe and listen to Freakonomics Radio.

3) Stream from our website or RSS Feed:

If you’re listening from your computer, this is probably the easiest way. Go to the Freakonomics Radio page and click on the “Feed” button on the right-hand side just below the search bar (or access it here). This will take you to a list of all of our podcasts. Find the one you want, and click “Play Now”; an MP3 of the podcast will now begin downloading to your computer. When the download has finished, you can open it with your media player of choice.

Alternately, you can also download a podcast from its individual page on Freakonomics.com/radio. You can click the play button to start streaming or click the “WNYC” link, which will take you to a WNYC page where you’ll see a “download” button under the player.

4) WNYC App

You can download the free WNYC App for iPhone or Android. In the app, go to “shows” in the dropdown menu. Scroll down to find Freakonomics Radio, pick an episode and hit “play” to start streaming. If you want to download an episode, hit “save.” You can adjust the settings — whether you want to bookmark an episode or download it, e.g. — under the “saved audio” tab.

5) Stitcher App and Swell App

You can listen to Freakonomics Radio on Stitcher or use the Stitcher app. On the app, select Freakonomics Radio and add it to your favorites playlist. You can also add specific episodes to your playlist, and again you can use the settings to adjust whether you want to stream or download for offline listening. We’ve also started hearing good things about the Swell app.


Any other suggestions? Please leave any listening tips or workarounds in the comments below — and, as always, thanks for listening.

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog, Freakonomics Radio"
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Date: Thursday, 24 Jul 2014 15:40

(Photo: www.CGPGrey.com)

(Photo: www.CGPGrey.com)

This week’s episode is called “Does Religion Make You Happy?” (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.)

We undertook this episode in response to a listener question from Joel Rogers, a tax accountant in Birmingham, Ala. Here’s what he wrote:

Being devout Southern Baptists my parents have steadfastly been giving 10% of their income to the church their whole lives. I recently voiced my opinion that I thought that was too [much to] give, and my parents and I got into an argument.

After a little back-and-forth, my parents conceded tithing at 10% may not be the exact amount ‘God’ expects, but my mother said something that stuck with me. She said the 10% they give to the church makes them happier than anything else they spend money on.

I’ve read that people who go to religious institutions consistently are happier than their counterparts. The economist inside me says that money (not given to the church) would make a non-tither happier, all things equal. So, will exchanging 10% of your income for the right to participate in a religious congregation statistically increase or decrease your happiness?

Joel is in effect asking two questions, related but separate. One is whether giving away money – in this case, to a religious institution – makes you happier. The other is whether religion itself makes you happier. Neither question is easy to answer, but we’ll do our best.

In the episode you’ll hear from Laurence Iannaccone, an economist at Chapman University who specializes in the economics of religion. Iannaccone says there is a strong correlation between religious giving and happiness but, as you’ll find out, just because giving and happiness seem to go hand in hand doesn’t mean the giving causes the happiness.

You’ll also hear from MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who has done quite a bit of research on these topics. In “Pay or Pray? The Impact of Charitable Subsidies on Religious Attendance” (abstract; PDF), Gruber tried to determine whether giving money to church is a complement to religious attendance or a substitute — and, whether it’s the giving or the going that actually makes people better off. Here’s his suggestion for the Rogers Family:

GRUBER: I would say if it’s really going … to church that matters for them, for their happiness and well-being, then they should maybe even give less and just go more.

And here’s what Gruber found in his paper “Religious Market Structure, Religious Participation, and Outcomes: Is Religion Good for You?” (abstract; PDF):

GRUBER: [The religious are] more likely to have higher incomes, higher education, have more stable marriages, be less likely to be on welfare, essentially be more successful on any economic measure you want to use.

In the podcast, Stephen Dubner also wonders: what if you’ve been giving to your church but find you’re no better off in the long run? As it turns out, some churches, like NewSpring in South Carolina, offer a money-back guarantee.

Finally: a big thanks to the Rogers Family (as well as to WBHM producer Andrew Yeager), who let us go to church with them at Grace Life Baptist Church in McCalla, Alabama.

Rogers Family

Author: "Gretta Cohn" Tags: "Featured Post, Featured Radio Post, Frea..."
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Date: Thursday, 24 Jul 2014 13:43

[AMBI: Birds chirping]

JOEL: Jesus can’t keep the heat out in there!

WAYNE: Woo man, nice and warm!

JOEL: I’m dumping sweat…

WAYNE: I’ll tell you what!

Stephen J. DUBNER: That’s Joel Rogers and his father Wayne.

JOEL: Yeah! So we’re just about to walk into Grace Life Baptist Churchand worship with my parents, and my brother, also, my sister is about to be here, running a little late as usual.

[AMBI: Roosters crow, gravel crunch]

[MUSIC: Cantinero, “Happy When I’m Down” (from Championship Boxing)]

DUBNER: We’re in McCalla, Alabama, about 20 minutes outside of Birmingham, on a very warm Sunday morning.

WAYNE: It’s uh, I would say, fairly typical evangelical service.

LAURI: It used to be an old gym so the setting is a little different than a traditional church. There are no windows in here, but there is a praise band up on the stage. Sometimes there is a choir, the choir is off right now for summer.

DUBNER: That’s Lauri, Joel’s mom. She has a lot of friends here.

PEOPLE: Hi! Nice to see you! Hey! How’s it going? Good to see you!

LAURI: This is kind of like the fellowship area, it’s fun to see everybody in here and you get to see people who might not come to your service.

JOEL: Most people call it hanging out, at the church they call it fellowship.

LAURI: Exactly! That’s the church word.

Pastor Joel FREDERICK: Glad you’re here, let’s stand together this morning. We want to go to the Lord in prayer today. Father God, we bow our hearts before you, and we are so thankful God to see people coming to know Jesus…

DUBNER: We went to church with Joel Rogers’s family this morning because of an e-mail he sent us. Joel works as a tax accountant in Birmingham. Here’s what he wrote: “Being devout Southern Baptists” – Joel italicized “Southern” – “my parents have steadfastly been giving 10% of their income to the church their whole lives. I recently voiced my opinion that I thought that was too much to give, and my parents and I got into an argument. After a little back-and-forth, my parents conceded that tithing at 10% may not be the exact amount God expects, but my mother said something that stuck with me. She said the 10% they give to the church makes them happier than anything else they spend money on.” Joel goes on here: “I’ve read that people who go to religious institutions consistently are happier than their counterparts. The economist inside me says that money (not given to the church) would make a non-tither happier, all things equal.” So here’s what Joel wants to know:

JOEL: Will forfeiting 10% of your income, for the right to go to a church and experience a church congregation….will that make you happier or less happy, overall?

[MUSIC: The Dibs, “Brompton’s Cocktail”]

DUBNER: That’s the question we’ll try to answer on today’s show. But really Joel is asking two questions – related, but separate. One is whether giving away money – in this case, to a religious institution – makes you happier. The other is whether religion itself makes you happier. Here are Joel’s parents again:

LAURI: I think the world is a better place because of our little bit of tithing.

WAYNE: By tithing I am pleasing God. I am doing something that God would want me to do. That gives me happiness in that way, too.

DUBNER: And even Joel sees how giving money to the church can have a personal upside:

JOEL: I mean if I think back to another thing that I spent 20 dollars on, I don’t know, a t-shirt, like, which one would bring me more prolonged happiness? And I think the answer is probably giving the money away.

DUBNER: But, as we’ll see in this episode, these questions aren’t so simple.

WAYNE: Does it make me happy to tithe? Would I be happier if I had that 10% in my 401(k). Ugh, I don’t know. But you know my 401(k) would look a lot better if I had all the 10% that I had given over the years.

FREDERICK: ….we thank you God for all of this and we pray it in Jesus name and all of God’s people said:



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

[MUSIC: The Civil Tones, “Outrageous” (from City Stoopin’)]

DUBNER: Okay, we’re trying to answer Joel Rogers’s question about whether giving money to your church makes you happier in the long run:

Laurence IANNACCONE: When you just look at survey statistics, particularly in the United States, you find a strong and consistent positive association between rates of giving and happiness.

DUBNER: That’s Larry Iannaccone.

IANNACCONE: I’m a professor of economics here at Chapman University. I’m Christian I would classify myself as Evangelical Christian.

DUBNER: Iannaccone has studied the history of religious giving, including tithing:

IANNACCONE: Tithing literally comes from the word a tenth and  traditionally meant ten percent of something, usually your income, paid to a church or to religion in general. The term originates as far back as the Bible, and in ancient Israel, the people of Israel were expected to give a tenth of their income, a tenth of their farm produce, to the priesthood, and to also help the poor.

DUBNER: At some points, and places in history, tithing was essentially a government tax. But things have evolved a good bit:

IANNACCONE: In American churches, however, when you hear tithing used today, you’re almost always talking about contributions that are freely given to the church. Often some fixed percent of people’s income, but not necessarily 10 percent. So, in that sense, the term is something of a misnomer and its use has evolved and changed quite a bit over time.

[MUSIC: The Willie August Project, “Lost And Found” (from Surrender to the Wind)]

DUBNER: Iannaccone can tell us which American denominations are most likely to tithe:

IANNACCONE: It varies some, but you hear it more among Protestants and especially conservative Protestants, those who try to emulate or describe their behavior in terms of biblical traditions. So they’re drawing on that ancient term and tradition from the Old Testament. You hear it especially among Mormons, but you also hear it in the Assemblies of God and many theologically conservative Protestant traditions. It’s not unusual to hear Baptists talking about tithing.

DUBNER: Baptists like Wayne Rogers.

WAYNE: I was taught to do it by my grandparents. When I was very very young, my granddad would give me a dollar every Sunday to give to the church. From the time I was three years old I would take an envelope with a dollar in it. So then as I got to be in middle school and high school and started making a little bit of my own money, my grandmother said Wayne, are you tithing off of that money?

[MUSIC: The Mackrosoft, “The Bison” (from Upgrade)]

DUBNER: Larry Iannaccone has some data, from the General Social Surveys, on the rate of giving among different American Christian denominations. At the top are Assemblies of God, Seventh-Day Adventists and Mormons.

IANNACCONE: They average closer to 6 or 7% of their income—which is really quite an astonishingly large amount.

DUBNER: Baptists on average give 3 to 5% of their income. Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians give about 1%. So the trend is that the more liberal denominations give less. And then there are the Unitarians.

IANNACCONE: Unitarians, who by many measures are the most liberal of all, give less than 1% of their income to religious causes.

DUBNER: According to one evangelical Christian polling firm, 5 percent of Americans give at least 10 percent of their income to a religious or other non-profit institution. Among born-again Christians, that 5 percent rate jumps to 12 percent. If you look at the share of religious giving in the whole charitable picture, you find that roughly two-thirds of Americans’ individual contributions go to religious institutions.We could talk at great length about what those institutions do with all that money, and maybe someday we will. But today, we’re trying to answer Joel Rogers’s question, which is: what does all that giving do for the giver? Larry Iannaccone again:

IANNACCONE: The data that we have suggest a pretty strong positive association between various measures of happiness and wellbeing on the one hand, and other measures of religious involvement, including giving, on the other.

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

DUBNER: Okay, that sounds fairly persuasive – that giving and happiness go hand in hand. But, as Iannaccone is careful to point out, there are a number of caveats here. Just because giving and happiness go together doesn’t mean that the giving causes the happiness. It could be that happier people are more likely to give money. It could be that having more money makes you happier, and therefore more able to give. Or that being happy makes you likely to make more money, which makes you more able to give. In other words: it’s not so easy to establish firm causal proof – as our listener Joel Rogers is looking for – as to whether giving money to your church makes you happier.

Jonathan GRUBER: The answer is complicated and the answer actually speaks to two different elements of research I’ve done on religion.

DUBNER: That’s Jon Gruber.

GRUBER: I’m a professor of economics at MIT. Um I grew up in  a Jewish household with a very religious mother and a fairly not-very religious father.  You know, mom sort of ran things. We were reform but pretty serious about it.

DUBNER: So are you a religious person yourself?

GRUBER: No I’m not.

DUBNER: Gruber is, however, very much interested in the questions we’re asking today. But, with causality in this realm being elusive, Gruber had to get a little creative.

GRUBER: This was my first paper on religion. It’s called, it’s my favorite title of a paper I’ve ever written, it’s called “Pay or Pray.” And it was actually a bit inspired by an episode from my childhood, which is my father, he’s a finance professor, and so he was sort of induced to become treasurer of our temple. And he said, “Oh, now I’m treasurer of our temple, oh good, that means I can go less.” Now that wasn’t about giving and going. That was about time and going, but nonetheless it sort of implied that trade-off.

DUBNER: The question Gruber was asking in this paper is a subtle one: does giving money to a religious institution complement going to religious services, or act as a substitute?

GRUBER: Giving to charity is very tax-price sensitive. This is well known in economics that when you give a bigger tax break to charitable giving, people give more. But then no one had ever looked, well what did it do to their attendance? And I found that if you give a bigger tax break to charitable giving, people give more and go less. That is: they are substitutes.

DUBNER: Gruber’s father, in other words, was more norm than exception. Gruber found that every 1 percent rise in charitable giving led to a 1.1% decline in religious attendance. But what about someone like Joel Rogers’s parents? They give their 10 percent to the church, and feel really good about it. Is it the giving that feels good, or is it the going to church that feels good?

GRUBER: I would say if it’s really going that matters, if it’s going to church that matters for them, for their happiness and wellbeing, then they should maybe even give less and just go more.

[MUSIC: Phil Symonds, “Rusty Tear”]

DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: does attending religious services make people better off?

GRUBER: What I find is an incredibly strong correlation, that basically these people are more likely to have higher incomes, have higher education, have more stable marriages, be less likely to be on welfare, essentially be more successful on any sort of economic measure you want to use.

DUBNER: One more thing: if you do not already subscribe to Freakonomics Radio — we believe you should. Just sign up, for free, at iTunes, and you’ll get the next episode in your sleep.


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

[MUSIC: The Civil Tones, “Slinky” City Stoopin’)]

DUBNER: Today we’re in church, in McCalla, Alabama…

FREDERICK: Let’s pray: Lord thank you. Thank you for your love for us that never gives up…

DUBNER: … with Joel Rogers and his family. Joel’s parents give 10 percent of their income to their church. Here’s what Joel wanted to know:

JOEL: Will forfeiting 10% of your income, for the right to go to a church and experience a church congregation, will that make you happier or less happy overall?

DUBNER: We’ve already established that the connection between donating to a church and happiness can be hard to prove. But what about the connection between happiness and religion itself?

GRUBER: So, I came up with what I thought was a fairly convincing idea for this.

DUBNER: That’s Jon Gruber again, he’s an MIT economist who has tried to measure whether religion makes people better off.

GRUBER: As your listeners know, developing a causal case means finding some factor that changes religiosity, but doesn’t change happiness. You know, the fact there’s this correlation that religious people are happier could be that religious people have higher incomes, religious people live in parts of the country that are happier, whatever.

DUBNER: Or it could be that happier people tend to be more likely to participate in religious services, yeah.

GRUBER: Or more worrisome, what we call reverse causality, that the happier people could be more likely to participate.

[MUSIC: Spencer Garn, “Solar Gazer”]

DUBNER: Gruber began by looking into the research conducted by sociologists, like Rodney Stark:

GRUBER: One of the findings in this field is that  people are more religious if they’re in an area that’s more densely composed of their religion. So basically if you are a Catholic in Boston, you are more religious than a Catholic in Minneapolis. And if you’re a Lutheran in Minneapolis, you’re more religious than a Lutheran in Boston.

DUBNER: Now, why was that religious clustering important for trying to measure the impact of religiosity?

GRUBER: That’s a fact that was given to me. That was well documented in the literature. And so what I said is, well, if you look at who lives where, that’s largely a function of sort of what waves of immigrants came over at what time. And certain ethnic backgrounds have certain religions associated with them.

DUBNER: Alright, so let me say this. I believe you because you sound believable and you have good credentials, you have great credentials. But as a layperson, and in this case I speak not only for myself, but I probably represent most of our listeners, that methodology as a means to extricate the causal relationship of attending religion changing your life, it’s a little, I don’t know how to say it.

GRUBER: Distant.

DUBNER: Yeah, distant is a great word. So, before we get into the findings, just persuade me a little bit more, and in as plain English as you can, why this variable and why this methodology is worthwhile and believable to you.

GRUBER: Okay, so first of all this is an unbelievably hard problem because there’s lots of things that correlate with both outcomes and religion, and because people who are say richer or happier may choose to be more or less religious. So it’s clearly a typical, difficult, Freakonomics-style problem. So, basically, why do I believe my solution? Well, essentially the starting point for my solution is saying, look, Polish people in Boston are much more religious than Polish people in Minneapolis. Likewise, Swedish people in Boston who are otherwise pretty similar are less religious than Swedish people in Minneapolis. Now, there’s no great reason for that other than the fact that they’re not around people of their ethnicity and thus their religion. Moreover you might say, well, maybe Polish people in Boston are just different in some way. But then let me go one step further. You might say okay well look Jon, that’s all well and good, but Poles and Swedes aren’t identical. Maybe Poles in Boston are different than Poles in Minneapolis. Maybe they’re different along some other dimension. The way I can test that is I can look at participation in other activities. So if you’re really worried that gee Poles in Boston are just different they should be more likely to be in other clubs, or other civic activities or other similar things, and they’re not. So except for being more religious, Poles and Swedes in Boston are no different. Now look, is this a bullet proof argument? No. I mean, let’s be honest about this paper this is how economics works. This paper was not accepted at a top economics journal. The top economics journals had enough concerns that this was not real, that you know, this paper was published in a second tier journal. So is this the cleanest paper that I’ve ever written, not by a long shot. But I’m pretty convinced.

DUBNER: Right, okay, so you find that the clustering of national identity has something to do with religious participation.

GRUBER: Exactly.

DUBNER: Therefore…

GRUBER: Therefore, I look and I ask does the clustering of ethnic identity also correlate with economic outcome. And what I find is an incredibly strong correlation, that basically these people who are clustered with others of their ethnicity are more likely to have higher incomes, have higher education, have more stable marriages, be less likely to be on welfare, essentially be more successful on any sort of economic measure you want to use.

DUBNER: And just persuade me that it’s the religious participation that you feel is the causal driver in that as opposed to let’s say the ethnic clustering itself. In other words, I could imagine that when there are a lot of Poles in Boston, there are network effects that might aid education, health, income/outcomes the way that potentially religious observation does.

GRUBER: Right and the way I want to convince you of that that is two things. One is I want to say what I do is I can look at what happens to Poles when there are a lot of Italians in Boston. So essentially because they share the same religion but not much else. So I can actually ask what happens not just to Poles where there are Poles in Boston, I can control for that, I can essentially say let me get rid of your own ethnic density and ask what happens to Poles when there are a lot of other groups that happen to be Catholic in Boston? And so that way it’s not just asking look if there’s other people of your ethnicity, it’s asking are there other people of other ethnicities that share your religion. And then I also have the fact that you’re not more likely to participate in anything else, so it looks like it’s operating to the religion margin.

DUBNER: Excellent, okay good. So I have to say, that was one of our…I love these…This show is meant to be primarily entertainment, but we love to teach when we can. And to me that was a great teaching sequence there. I think anybody will hear that and really understand the way that someone like you tries to approach a question like that. So that was awesome.

GRUBER: Yeah, and look, I think, you know, its important for your listeners to understand that you know, life’s not black and white, and sometimes there’s cleaner answers than others, and sometimes we have a randomized trial and sometimes we don’t. And in life you’ve got to decide is the question important enough that you want to answer it even if there’s not as clean an answer as you’d like.

[MUSIC: Nasimiyu, “Time is a Train” (from Rules Aren’t Real)]

DUBNER: So let’s say I accept that finding that religious participation doesn’t just correlate to better outcomes in life but actually helps produce them: higher levels of education and income like you said lower levels of welfare receipt, disability and divorce. What, if you have any idea, are the mechanisms by which you think religious participation leads to these outcomes?

GRUBER: So there’s essentially several possibilities. The sort of least exciting possibility is through educational routes, which is maybe when there’s a lot of Catholics there’s more Catholic schools. Now, I don’t think that’s it. But that is one possible route. I think another route and the route that I probably find most likely is the church is essentially a social network, that essentially provides kind of insurance against bad things happening to you, and that it provides a place where you can go and network if you lose a job, you can have people who can help you out if times get tough, loan you money or whatever.

DUBNER: Or even if times aren’t tough, if you’re a successful business person theoretically you expand even more if you’re successful within your community.

GRUBER: Exactly. Basically churches are the source of social capital in society, are the main source of social capital in society. And therefore if you’re around more people like you, that’s a bigger community, that’s what we call in economics a thicker market. There’s more people around who can help you out as you’re growing, help you out if you’re hurting, it’s really sort of a social insurance notion of a church. And then finally and most speculatively, faith itself may produce better outcomes. I know a number of people who are very religious. It gives them a calmness and a certainty that allows them to be successful in other areas of their life.

DUBNER: I’m curious if along the way of doing this research if your research persuaded you to either get involved, or want to get involved more in something resembling religious participation since it seems to be pretty good for you, or were you convinced that you’re already doing well enough and didn’t need it?

GRUBER: You know, what it changed in me is it gave me, I probably had the typical secular, rich, liberal skeptic’s view of religion.

DUBNER: Which is what?

GRUBER: Which is that religion is sort of an opiate to the masses. You know, kind of, the religious right is kind of ruining America. Religion is a source of wars in the Middle East. Religion is basically bad. And I think it really changed my view on that, that I really gained appreciation for the role religion can play in people’s lives, appreciation for my friends who are more religious, and a respect for the role religion plays in their lives. But it didn’t really affect my religiosity. I think it’s something that just has to come to you or not. I was kind of forced to go to temple as a kid, I kind of burned out on it, and it’s just not, I kind of tried, and I just didn’t feel it. So I decided I wasn’t going to kind of fake it to make it. So it didn’t really affect my life. But for example, my wife is, she’s Unitarian. We raised the kids Jewish, although she never converted, and now she’s going to become a Unitarian minister. And I think that’s something I probably wouldn’t have been supportive of before I did this research. And now I’m very supportive of her. I think it’s great for her. She’s getting faith and doing that.

[MUSIC: Blindfold Sound, “Guitar Ambient 1”]

DUBNER: Okay, so does religion itself make people better off? As best as Jon Gruber can tell the answer is… quite possibly. If that’s the case, you can see why some people are willing to donate a considerable chunk of their income to their religious institution. Which, if you follow this line of questioning through to its natural conclusion, might lead you to think – well, okay, if I’m tithing money to my church and I’m not better off in the long run, maybe I should get my money back? It turns out that some churches do offer that money-back guarantee.

Pastor Perry NOBLE: We are challenging you to take our 90-Day Tithe Challenge. And in 90 days if you don’t feel like God has blessed you, if you don’t feel like God has done what his Word has said, if you believe God is a liar, here’s what we’ll do, we’ll refund every dime that you gave during that 90 day period. No questions asked.

DUBNER: Perry Noble is the senior pastor of NewSpring Church in Anderson, South Carolina.

NOBLE: I think the thing about the 90-Day Tithe Challenge is it just tells people, hey, we’re smoking what we are selling here. I believe we’ve had over 4,000 people total sign up for the challenge since we’ve started and between 15 and 20 people total since we started it a couple of years ago have ever asked for their money back.

[MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “Timebomb” (from Outcries From A Sea of Red)]

DUBNER: I asked Jon Gruber, the economist, what he thought of this offer:

GRUBER: Well, I think it’s, I guess quite frankly I think it’s terribly misleading. I think that you know, if we go with the theory that religious participation is good for you because it builds faith and security, the last thing you want to do is have people keeping track and saying God didn’t really score me anything in the last three months, I want my money back. That sort of, that seems to promote a transactional view of religion which is damaging. And I don’t find that helpful at all.

DUBNER: We also ran the tithing refund idea past the Rogers family. They didn’t like it any more than Jon Gruber:

WAYNE: I think that’s completely nuts! I mean it’s not Sears. It’s very different when you give to the church. Once I give the money away I expect them to do something good with it and I dont want the money back.

LAURI: God says, “Give a tithe. Test me and see if I will pour out blessings.” It doesn’t say what type of blessing and I don’t think the blessings have to necessarily be in any way that we can measure it. So I don’t see how a church could say they could have a money back guarantee. Seems like a very selfish reason to give if the only reason you give is to get back, so I think it takes away from the whole heart of it.

JOEL: You do get an itemized tax deduction, though, for giving to the church, a good 30 percent.

[MUSIC: Carson Henley, “Give It Up” (from 100 Hours)]

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Podcast Transcripts"
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Date: Thursday, 17 Jul 2014 11:52

(Photo: Nana B Agyei)

(Photo: Nana B Agyei)

This week’s episode is called “Why You Should Bribe Your Kids.” (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.)

Let’s say you’re trying to get a bunch of kids to eat more nutritious food. What’s the best way to do this — education, moral urging, or plain old bribery? That’s one of the questions that a pair of economists set out to answer in a recent field experiment in Chicago. In this podcast, you’ll hear from both of them: John List, a University of Chicago professor (and co-author of The Why Axis who’s familiar to readers of this blog); and Anya Samek, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

They tried several methods to see what would make kids choose fruit over a cookie. One trick, Samek tells us, easily beat the rest:

SAMEK: It actually works every time. So we come in five times and every time we have these really high rates of selection of the fruit.

The conversation then broadens, addressing the fact that so many people — kids and adults — have a hard time making good short-term decisions that will have a long-term benefit. As List puts it:

LIST: The general point here about all of this is that you have many problems where what you do now affects what happens later, and usually we choose the easier decision or the easier action now. You think about savings for retirement, you think about getting doctor check-ups, you think about going to school, you think about engaging in risky behaviors, you think about adopting green technologies for our houses. In all of these cases we usually choose the bad action. And that action is to do what’s best for us now to the detriment of the future, to the detriment of our future self. And nutritional choices right now are just one of these elements that we face in society where we need kids to recognize the choice that you make now will critically affect your outcome in the future.

Author: "Suzie Lechtenberg" Tags: "Featured Post, Featured Radio Post, Frea..."
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Date: Thursday, 17 Jul 2014 11:23

[MUSIC: Pearl Django, “La Rive Gauche” (from Under Paris Skies)]

Stephen J. DUBNER: Hello, John List?

John LIST: Stephen Dubner, how are you doing, man?

DUBNER: I’m great! How are you doing?

LIST: Great! Great!

DUBNER: John List is an economist at the University of Chicago. And he’s a family man – five kids.

DUBNER: Now… do you… do you ever have to bribe any of your kids? I’m just curious, John.

LIST: Every now and then I have to incentivize them. I don’t call it bribing. I call it incentivizing them. My kids refuse to eat seafood. So this comes directly from my wife who claims to have gotten a bad piece of fish when she was a third grader, but I’m a big seafood lover, and we were in the Bahamas about six months ago and I thought of an incentive scheme for my kids that included a large sum of money if they would eat fish for seven consecutive days.

DUBNER: And how’d that work out?

LIST: Three of the five kids it worked for. They collected the money. And I was hoping then that they would acquire a taste for seafood, that they would say, “You know, Dad, that whitefish is actually pretty good.” Or, “You know, one time we had crab legs”. But no, zero of five for the long run the minute we touched ground back here in the states….The kids have not touched fish since, even the three of five who were eating the fish down in the Bahamas.

DUBNER: How much did they get from you?

LIST: I better talk about that off air. Put it this way, a lot of money.

DUBNER: So three of them at least played you pretty well, though.

LIST: Well, I don’t know about played me. They responded to the incentives, they ate the fish.

DUBNER: But your incentive in giving them that big cash bounty was not just to get them to eat it for the week, presumably.

LIST: Absolutely. I wanted to modify their long-term behavior. And it’s hard to… it’s just a lesson that it’s really hard to change habits.


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

[MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “Thanks Maw” (from Outcries From A Sea Of Red)]

DUBNER: So is it possible to bribe kids to eat the food you want them to eat? And even if it’s possible, is it desirable? That’s what we’re talking about on today’s show — but not just about bribing and eating; we’ll talk about how bribing incentives may work with all kinds of behaviors. Now, you just heard John List describe his failure to bribe – excuse me – to incentivize his kids to eat something they didn’t want to eat. That was his experience as a parent. So you might think that, as an economist, John List also doesn’t believe that incentives can change the way kids eat. But you’d be wrong. List recently ran a field experiment in Chicago, along with another economist, Anya Samek.

Anya SAMEK: Okay, so what we’re trying to do is understand what kinds of small behavioral nudges or education we can use to actually improve children’s food choices.

DUBNER: That’s Samek. She’s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,

SAMEK: And we’re using this after-school program called the Kids Café. And there are 24 of these in the city of Chicago and surrounding area. Kids come there, they receive some help on their homework, and then they’re given free food. And what we do is we randomize these different Kids Cafés. And when I say randomize I mean we randomly put different Kids Cafes into different treatments. We have one treatment where we tell the Kids Café just carry on as you are, but at the end of the food-choice we’re going to give kids a second choice, it’s going to be which dessert to have. And they can either have the healthy dessert or the less healthy one.

DUBNER: And what are the two desserts you’re offering, the healthy and the less healthy?

SAMEK: So the healthier dessert — this is actually a good question — we thought about this for a long time, and the healthy dessert is a cookie…I’m sorry.

DUBNER: Wishful thinking.

SAMEK: Yeah, yeah, yeah the unhealthy dessert is a cookie…

DUBNER: What kind of cookie?

SAMEK: We really were quite careful and we chose a low-sugar, whole-wheat cookie. And the reason we did that…

DUBNER: Oh, come on, and that’s the good one?

SAMEK: We didn’t feel comfortable going in and giving 1,500 kids who were at risk for obesity a really high-sugar, delicious cookie.

DUBNER: Okay. Alright.

SAMEK: The healthy dessert then, we again ran into a problem, so we really wanted to use fresh fruit. And unfortunately because of the logistics of how this food is delivered, which is actually another big problem with the way that we deliver food to kids in these school lunchroom settings is that we couldn’t get fresh fruit there so we had to use dried fruit.

DUBNER: Which has sugar concentration problems of its own that fresh fruit doesn’t have, yeah?

SAMEK: Yes, exactly. So one thing that we can’t do is say that for this particular 1,500 kids we really improved their nutrition because all we did was we observed their choices. And all we needed to do was believe that most kids were going to choose the cookie and that’s the less healthy option, and that’s exactly what happened.

DUBNER: Okay so all else equal, you’ve got 1,500 kids roughly. They have their meal and then they do homework and maybe hang out and play a little bit. And then at the end they’re having this snack, this dessert with a choice, yes?

SAMEK: Yeah.

DUBNER: Okay, and just describe to me how this is, how the experiment itself is set up. How is the choice set constructed?

SAMEK: So we announce to kids that they get a choice of this dessert. And we tell them they can only choose one item and they have to eat it there in the cafeteria. And then we come around and we have these trays in which we have a large number of cookies and a large number of fruit and then we just have kids choose one. All of these kids, we know all of their names, we record exactly what they’ve selected, and that’s our control group.

DUBNER: Okay, and you’re doing this for a few days, a few weeks to establish a baseline, how does that work?

SAMEK: We come in twice and then we have kids make this choice, and what we find is that less than 20 percent of kids are choosing healthy. And then we come in for a period of five more days in which we now have these treatment schools actually receive incentives or education. And what we find there, we come in, we read all this information about the food pyramid, so we tell kids that look you really should choose the fruit, fruit’s really good for you, we have this campaign, it’s called Eat Strong, so we tell them you should eat strong. You’re going to be strong on the playground, you’re going to learn more at school, it’s going to be very good for you, this is really good for your health, the USDA recommends that you eat more fruit. And we show on the food pyramid. We have all these posters, and we walk around and show these posters with the food pyramid. And kids don’t improve their food choice at all.

DUBNER: Okay, so teaching them doesn’t improve their choices, or it doesn’t change their choices. Now before we declare that a dead end, do we know that this mode of education was a good one, or maybe…Like when you’re telling me that, if you tell me that if I eat this little cup of raisins and dried apricots that I’m going to be a stud on the playground and a superstar in the classroom, I’m just going to say, ‘Anya, you seem nice, but I don’t believe you. That doesn’t sound compelling to me.’ Do we know if the education is actually considered legitimate by them?

SAMEK: Well, it’s the education that you would administer if you went on the USDA website and pulled off their informational materials.

DUBNER: Right, I know that, but what I’m saying maybe the USDA isn’t so good at this. I realize I’m throwing a stupid thing in the middle of your smart thing. But that’s the way I think.

SAMEK: No, so obviously we could be using the wrong education, that’s true. So we can’t say much about whether it’s the right education or not. But what we can say is that we give them this education, we tell them about how healthy fruit is and 8 out of 10 kids still choose the cookie.

DUBNER: Okay, alright, so that’s not working so well. What else do you have up your sleeve?

SAMEK: So we come in and we have these incentives that we thought, we didn’t even know what to do with these incentives because they were a little bit lame, so we just had these pens, we had these rubber bracelets and then we have these tiny plastic trophies that just said “I ate strong.” And we told kids if you choose the fruit and you eat it, you get to pick out one of these prizes. And now we have 8 out of 10 kids who are choosing the fruit.

DUBNER: Oh my god, for plastic trophies, and pens and rubber bracelets.

SAMEK: That’s right. So these things are very popular. They’re very cheap so they cost us less than a dime each. And kids are choosing healthy and they don’t have any education about why they should be choosing healthy, at least from us. But now we’ve really improved food choice.

DUBNER: Now, how do we know this is not just a novelty, that it’s the first time that they get offered the incentives, or does it not even matter? Is it just a matter of kind of switching the habit or the preference?

SAMEK: Well it actually works every time. So we come in five times and every time we have these really high rates of selection of the fruit.

DUBNER: And do they actually eat the fruit then? Or do they just –

SAMEK: They have to eat it to get the toy. They have to eat it.

DUBNER: And did you check their cheeks and so on like in prison to make sure they swallowed or they’re sticking it under the table, or it doesn’t go that far?

SAMEK: We were actually pretty careful. So this study took a lot of undergraduates from the University of Chicago who were walking around and monitoring these kids.

[MUSIC: Phil Symonds, “Caravan Cookoo”]

DUBNER: Okay, so what did the researchers take away from this experiment?

SAMEK: Overall all of these studies really show, first of all, that you can make a small change in a school setting, in a food setting, for kids and have it have a big impact on choices. It shows that education is not enough. We actually do find when we combine education with incentives, that that has the strongest long-term effect, which I didn’t address earlier, but that’s an important point, that in addition to education we need to really give kids a moment where they can make a choice. And that’s the moment where we can provide a nudge, where incentives can act as a great nudge for that.

DUBNER: If I’m a restaurant, I want to sell a lot of food, I want to make the money that I’m able to make. If I’m the government, I think especially as I’m paying more and more for people’s health care long-term as the government, I want to keep people healthier and therefore I have an interest in getting people to eat more nutritiously. So I can put some pressure on restaurants to either serve more nutritious food, serve less food, or help them somehow come up with a scheme to at least educate people or make them a little bit more likely to eat more nutritious food. So I can have calorie counts, or maybe even subsidize healthier food choices. That seems to be fairly viable. Yeah? Do you see evidence of that kind of thing going on and working well?

SAMEK: One project we have that is very effective, it’s a small nonprofit grocery store on the south side of Chicago called Louie’s Groceries. And we’ve gone in and we’ve been running studies in which we give adults incentives for choosing at least five fresh fruits and vegetables in their cart. And we’re actually giving them a dollar for every five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables they buy in a shopping trip. And we’re comparing that to another treatment in which adults are just receiving some educational information about why it’s important to eat fruits and vegetables. And there we see almost the same results that we’re seeing with these kids. So in a real environment where adults are making decisions about purchasing, incentives really work.

DUBNER: So the takeaways here seem to be that fruit must be subsidized whether dried or fresh, yes?

SAMEK: Right.

DUBNER: And that kids can be bribed successfully.

SAMEK: Yeah, well adults can be bribed successfully, too.

[MUSIC: The Jaguars, “The Swagger” (from The Jaguars)]

DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: so we can incentivize choices that benefit society, at least in some cases – but why should we have to?

LIST: You know, I think that this is one of the most important issues that humanity faces, is making this tradeoff between doing something costly now that will benefit me or humanity in the future. Things like staying in school, things like saving for retirement, things like adopting green technologies.

DUBNER: Also: if you are not a subscriber to this podcast – well, please become one. It’s free. It’s easy. You can sign up at iTunes – and then you’ll get the next episode in your sleep.


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

[MUSIC: Seks Bomba, “Cal Tjader” (from Thanks and Goodnight)]

DUBNER: We heard Anya Samek describe the field experiment she worked on with John List.

LIST: I’m John List, and I’m a professor at the University of Chicago’s economics department.

DUBNER: What, exactly, does John List do?

LIST: And what I do is I go out into the real world and try to change it for the better using field experiments.

DUBNER: That sounds pretty simple. Can you give me an example?

LIST: Very simple. So let’s talk about the simple example that we’re talking about today. What we’re after is we’re trying to explain or describe first of all the consumption choices of the underprivileged children in America. And once we see the types of foods that they’re consuming, which is not a great thing. You know, if they have a choice between a cookie and a bowl of fruit, they choose the cookie. So our idea is to go out…

DUBNER: Now, John, can I just interrupt you for once second there? Is it fair to say that this is the kind of poor choice, relatively poor choice that an underprivileged kid makes or is that the same choice do you know that a mediocre-ly-privileged adult would make as well. In other words is this a function of childhood or…

LIST: Absolutely.

DUBNER: I’m just curious to know what you know about food choice in children versus adults generally?

LIST: Yeah, so I think that this is a general problem, but you have the problem in an even stronger way amongst the underprivileged who have less resources to use to purchase and consume healthier foods. So when I say underprivileged, I think this is our experimental testing ground, but nevertheless you do have the same problem throughout society. You have kids, you know, running an obesity rate of about one in five across America. And in urban settings the obesity rate is a little bit higher than that. But the general point here about all of this is that you have many problems where what you do now affects what happens later, and usually we choose the easier decision or the easier action now. You think about savings for retirement, you think about getting doctor check-ups, you think about going to school, you think about engaging in risky behaviors, you think about adopting green technologies for our houses. In all of these cases, we usually choose the bad action. And that action is to do what’s best for us now to the detriment of the future, to the detriment of our future self. And nutritional choices right now are just one of these elements that we face in society where we need kids to recognize the choice that you make now will critically affect your outcome in the future.

[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “Shadow Of Your Soul” (from Let’s Cool One)]

DUBNER: There’s an idea, quite prevalent in our society, that if we can only teach people that they are making poor decisions now that will adversely affect them later – well, they’ll make better decisions now. But the experiment that John List and Anya Samek did in Chicago, trying to get kids to eat healthier snacks, showed that an educational message didn’t work at all, at least not in that setting. So… maybe it’s reasonable to think that educational messaging isn’t as potent as we think.

LIST: Right, I think at just about every walk of life we have messages like get out the vote, it’s your duty to vote. We had messaging in the States on smoking for decades. And now with a combination of changing the prices of smoking, and what I mean by that is increasing the tax rates on purchases of cigarettes, along with messaging, those together formed a very important duo to curb smoking in the United States. But when you look at other countries, just go to Europe, you can see that smoking is alive and well in Europe. And they surely have the same information that we have on the detrimental effects of smoking. But I think in every walk of life you have people saying stay in school, don’t do drugs, you know, messaging has a really hard time working, and I think by and large because they recipients of those messages is not a demander of that information. And if you’re not a demander you will have very little use for that information. You know, people say we should be green, we’re ruining the planet because of carbon emissions, global warming. But again, that’s a problem where if we curb our consumption of carbon now, that hurts us, that hurts our economic growth, and we’re not going to see the advantages for 50, 100, 150 or 200 years. People don’t want to make that tradeoff between now and then.

DUBNER: Do you think that policymakers and other, you know, incentive creators are starting to get the message that educational messaging especially when its got a sort of moral tone to it is not very effective, or do you see people in the academic and research realms where you live who understand this quite fully just look out at those policymakers and say, ‘Oh boy, they really don’t get it yet’?

LIST: Right, I sort of see, I sort of see both. On the one side you have policymakers who don’t get it. On the other side, you have policymakers who really do get it, but that’s really the only tool at their disposal. You see, using messages is cheap. You have government agencies… right now I’m working with the U.K. government to try to convince people to pay their taxes. You have many people who have not paid their income taxes in the U.K. And the U.K. government sends out letters to them every year telling them please pay your taxes. So they ask us, ‘Can you run some field experiments with us to help convince people to pay their taxes’? And we propose all kinds of different incentive schemes — you know, fines, jail time, all these fun things that economists dream about, and the policymakers say we can’t do that. We can’t change law. But what we can do is we can add those two cool sentences that you used back in your 1998 study, and we can use those sentences, which are on moral suasion to try to get people to pay their taxes. So, you see, they’re smart enough to know this might not be a great tool…

DUBNER: It’s the best they have.

LIST: Yeah, and it’s not very costly, and that’s important to them.

DUBNER: So, John, is the takeaway message of your study that it’s better to bribe kids to eat healthy food than to just teach at them?

LIST: I think the message would be you want to do both. I think you do not want to use messaging alone. If you do use messaging you should combine it with an incentive, because that will allow you to convince kids to make better choices, but it will also yield better consumption choices. I think we need to understand that this is a two-part problem, not only the choice but the consumption. And what we find is that messaging along with incentives give you that outcome, or that set of outcomes that you want.

[MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “Bella’s Boogaloo” (from Outcries From A Sea Of Red)]

DUBNER: Now take what you learned from this study, which is that incentives work in terms of food consumption, and generalize it for me as much as you can not only out of the experimental realm, but out of the childhood realm.

LIST: Right absolutely. You know, I think that this is one of the most important issues that humanity faces, is making this tradeoff between doing something costly now that will benefit me or humanity in the future. Things like staying in school, things like saving for retirement, things like adopting green technologies. We have to convince people right now to make the right choice for, in many case themselves, and also society, and I believe that strong dosage of incentives combined with tasteful messaging will allow us to get to that point, where we have people making the right choices now that will yield the right outcomes in the future. So when you think about all of our major problems, it’s a tradeoff through time. And you have kids who would rather skip school and go have fun when they’re 16 years old than stay in a boring algebra class. It’s a very simple point of calculus for them. They don’t see that the future labor market returns are 12 percent for every year that they stay in school. When you’re 16 years old you don’t even think about what’s going to happen when you’re 25 much less when you’re 18. And we need to combine the correct basket of incentives to align the kids’ choices with what society wants them to choose.

DUBNER: Okay, so that’s all well and good to say, and even if one believes it, and I personally tend to pretty much believe what you’re saying, what do you do? What is that basket of incentives for a 16-year-old who’s teetering on the edge of dropping out or not going to school?

LIST: Yeah, I think it is both. It depends on what realm we’re in. If we want to talk about education I think the solution is changing the prices to education. What I mean by that is taking some of the future rewards that we as a society reap from the kids staying in school and not committing crime and going to jail, taking some of those rewards and giving them to the kids now, or giving them to the parents now to incentivize the parent to make sure that the child stays in school, takes school seriously and goes on and gets the right education to help society and the future. That might be different than our food choices, for example, because we’re not talking about 16-year-olds now in our food experiment, we’re talking about six, seven, and eight-year-olds. Incenting a six, seven and eight-year-old with dollars doesn’t make any sense, you know, you have to choose, again, the right incentives. We chose toys, things like rubber ducks really turn a seven-year-old on. So I think in each case there is not a silver bullet, but nevertheless in each case in the long run we need education because, like I said, habits are what keep you going. And I think the education and information change beliefs but only over generations. I think now you have my kids who are coming home and telling me, ‘Papa, you better not smoke that cigar because it’s really bad to smoke.’ When I went home and saw my mom smoking I never thought it was a problem, smoking. But now our kids they’re actually programmed to think that smoking is a really bad thing. That has taken place over generations, and that’s were I think information and education works over the long run when we change habits. But you need initial incentives to change the motivations of our kids now. We just don’t want two generations of lost children because we couldn’t change their habits, we need to change the motivations now, and I think incentives will do that.

[MUSIC: Pearl Django, “Zingarelli” (from Under Paris Skies)]

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Podcast Transcripts"
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Date: Friday, 11 Jul 2014 13:56

From the (U.K.) Times:

Up to a million obese people will be offered weight-loss surgery on the NHS, under controversial new guidelines.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has ruled that all obese people who have been given a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes in the past decade should be considered for stomach bands and bypasses. …

Patient groups questioned how the health service would cope with the up-front cost, potentially running into billions of pounds, at a time when waiting lists for treatment have topped three million, the highest for six years. …

Weight-loss operations cost about £5,000 each, but Nice said that this had to be set against the 10 per cent of the £110 billion health budget being spent on treating diabetes and its complications, which can include blindness and amputations. …

However, Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said: “There is a mismatch between what Nice says based on the clinical evidence and the fact that all of this has to be paid for in an NHS which is already in the red . . . It’s the next patient who desperately needs an operation that really feels it when the doctor says, ‘We’ve just spent our last pound’. Somebody is going to suffer somewhere.”In draft guidance to be published today, Nice said it would be cost-effective to consider weight-loss surgery to all obese people who have been given a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes within the past decade. The fattest patients should be automatically offered an assessment for surgery, while doctors must at least consider it for the rest, Nice says.

Simon O’Neill of Diabetes UK agreed that surgery could lead to “dramatic weight loss” but warned that it should not be seen as a cure or an easy option, urging patients to persist with eating better and exercising more.

Author: "Stephen J. Dubner" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog, obesity"
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Date: Thursday, 10 Jul 2014 13:03



This week’s episode is called “What Do King Solomon and David Lee Roth Have in Common?” (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 gist? It isn’t easy to separate the guilty from the innocent — but a clever bit of game theory can help. The goal, as Steve Levitt puts it, is “to get the bad guys to come forward and tell you who they are.” It’s a trick that Levitt and Stephen Dubner, in their new book Think Like a Freak, call “teaching your garden to weed itself.”

In the episode you’ll hear what David Lee Roth and King Solomon have in common. Among the possibilities:

  1. They were both Jewish.
  2. They both got a lot of girls.
  3. They both wrote the lyrics to a number-one pop song.
  4. They both dabbled in game theory.

You’ll also hear the economist Peter Leeson — whose latest book is Anarchy Unbound – describe how medieval ordeals worked, and why it is that the majority of criminal suspects who were forced to grab a hot bar of iron were somehow not burned.

And Levitt and Dubner talk about a trap that they laid back when SuperFreakonomics was published. Here’s part of their exchange:

DUBNER: [Levitt, do] you remember that story we wrote in SuperFreakonomics about why terrorists should buy life insurance?

LEVITT: Yeah, that was one of my favorite things of all time.

DUBNER: But we didn’t tell the whole story, did we?

LEVITT: No we didn’t, we lied, and that was what was so fun about it.

Calm down! They lied in the service of a greater good – to catch terrorists. You’ll hear what they did. Now, admittedly, catching terrorists and sorting the innocent from the guilty is probably not something you have to do regularly — so the last story in this episode may be most relevant to you. It’s about why Nigerian e-mail scammers prominently say they are from Nigeria when most sensible people know the ruse. I can promise: when this episode is over, you’ll never look at spam e-mail, or at David Lee Roth, the same way ever again.

Author: "Suzie Lechtenberg" Tags: "Featured Radio Post, Freakonomics Blog, ..."
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Date: Thursday, 10 Jul 2014 12:40

[MUSIC: Margie Butler, “Morag’s Cradle Song/Walter Kilpie” (from Festival De Musiques Irlandaises Vol. 1 (Musiques Celtiques))]

Stephen J. DUBNER: Hello. I’d like you to imagine for a moment that you a sheep farmer. Not some fancy, 21st-century sheep farmer with heritage breeds and heated barns – just your standard, hard-working sheep farmer living hundreds of years ago, in medieval Europe. Okay, are you there, in your mind? Now, imagine that just down the road from you is a rival sheep farmer. The two of you have never gotten along. And now he’s accusing you of stealing some of his sheep. You are arrested and sent to court.

Peter LEESON: … and the court or the officials don’t have any real reason to think that the neighbor would make this up.

DUBNER: But nor is there enough evidence to convict. The judge doesn’t want to send an innocent man to prison, but he also doesn’t want to let a criminal go free. So he presents two options: you can either plead guilty or your case be turned over to a church court for a trial by ordeal.

LEESON: There were two basic types of ordeals in the period in question: ‘hot ordeals’ and ‘cold ordeals.’

DUBNER: That’s Peter Leeson.

LEESON: Hot ordeals consisted of trials by water. In which case, what they would do is —and by ‘they’ I mean clerics, it’s clerics, priests who were administering all of these ordeals—boil a pot of water, throw a stone or a ring into it, ask the defendant to plunge his arm into the water and pluck out the stone or the ring. Then they would wrap up the defendant’s arm and revisit it three days later. And if it was determined by the priest to be what they would called ‘foul’ within the wrapper—which is to say, showing serious signs of having been burned—the idea was that the defendant was guilty of the crime. And if there was no signs of injury, then he was considered innocent of the crime.

DUBNER: Ok. So, when we look back from our modern perspective, or modern as of today, at least, and kind of mentally ridicule these things as, you know, barbaric, or at the very least counterproductive, were they? Counterproductive?

LEESON: My argument is that they were not. My argument is that the ostensible purpose of ordeals, which was to find fact in criminal cases, is in fact what ordeals did, and they did so quite successfully.


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

[MUSIC: Greg Ruby, “Déjà Vu” (from Look Both Ways)]

DUBNER: Today’s program is about — well, it’s about “teaching your garden to weed itself.” Which, I realize, is a phrase that doesn’t make any sense to you — yet. But it will. We begin with Peter Leeson, who’s a professor of economics and law at George Mason University. Leeson has long been interested in the kind of topics that many economists aren’t so interested in. Anarchy, for instance.

LEESON: That work led me to some work on pirates, who are, of course, criminals and in consequence can’t rely on government to promote social cooperation within their organization. But I’ve also looked at the early modern institution in England of wife-selling, of human sacrifice, of the legal prosecution of insects and rodents. And a whole host of, I guess, things that most people would describe as peculiar, anyway.

DUBNER: Among these peculiar topics: trial by church ordeal in medieval Europe. Now from a modern perspective, a trial by ordeal sounds anything but rational. It couldn’t actually succeed at separating the guilty from the innocent, could it? Or could it? To find out, Leeson went looking for some data. One set of church records from thirteenth-century Hungary included 208 cases in which a defendant – like you, the accused sheep farmer — was summoned by a priest, led into the church, and was instructed to grab hold of a smoking-hot iron bar.

DUBNER: So if you were to just stop someone on the street, Peter, and say, ‘Hey, here’s a historical quiz: 208 people were sentenced to a trial by ordeal some many many centuries ago, and they had to grab a piece of hot iron that a priest was overseeing. How many of those 208 would you suspect were burned?’ Most people would say, ‘I assume 208’. Yes?

LEESON: That’s what I would think, yes.

DUBNER: So tell us in reality the number.

LEESON: Two-thirds of these cases, of the 208, involve exoneration, which means that the defendant is found innocent because the supposedly red-hot burning iron didn’t burn him.

DUBNER: OK, so two-thirds of the more than 200 people who are commanded—in a church, by a priest—to grab onto a piece of red-hot iron are not burned.

LEESON: That’s right.

[MUSIC: Glenn Crytzer and His Syncopators, “The Beaver Bump” (from Harlem Mad)]

DUBNER: Okay, how can this possibly be? How were two-thirds of the defendants not burned by a hot iron bar? Did God exonerate the innocent and punish the guilty? That’s not how Peter Leeson sees it. He explains this in two words: “Priestly rigging.” That’s right, the priests were arranging things so that most defendants who accepted the ordeal wouldn’t get burned by the hot iron bar or a cauldron of boiling water. Now, why would that be? Were the priests simply exercising a bit of human mercy? Did they maybe take bribes from some defendants? Not according to Peter Leeson. Here’s what he thinks was happening. Most people at the time likely believed in an almighty God who knew whether a defendant was guilty or innocent – and, accordingly, would burn the guilty man but protect the innocent man. For a defendant, knowing that God knows what you did or didn’t do, would affect your behavior. It changes the incentives.

LEESON: The key here is that because the priests know that the innocent person’s incentive is to undergo the ordeal, they also know that on the other side of it, the guilty person’s incentive is to decline the ordeal. The reason for that is exactly the flip-form of thinking. So now imagine that you did steal the sheep. Now you’re thinking, ‘Well, I know that if I undergo the ordeal, if I put my arm in the boiling water, I’m going to have my arm boiled to rags, because I am in fact guilty. God’s not going to perform the miracle. And in the process, on top of that, I’m going to be convicted of the crime.’ It’s better for me to simply either settle with the accuser or to confess to the crime and enjoy a somewhat less harsh punishment.

DUBNER: OK, so that explains why, if I were guilty, I would decline the ordeal and accept my penalty. But if I’m innocent, I would undergo the ordeal. And then what?

LEESON: Well, that’s the key thing. So the priest now knows that the incentive of the innocent person only is to undergo the ordeal. The guilty person is going to decline. Because the priest knows that, conditional on you being willing to undergo the ordeal, you reveal, if you will, this private information that you have about your guilt or innocence. You reveal the fact that you’re innocent to the priest. Now, in order, of course, to be exonerated, the water needs to not boil you. And so the priest’s job is, conditional to knowing that you’re innocent, is to turn down the dial on the stove, so to speak, to ensure that the water doesn’t boil you and exonerates you, as you expect.

[MUSIC: Greg Ruby, “Look Both Ways” (from Look Both Ways)]

DUBNER: If Peter Leeson is right – and there’s no guarantee of that – then the medieval trial-by-ordeal was, rather than a barbaric expression of divine justice, a rather brilliant means of sorting the innocent from the guilty. In economist-speak, this is known as breaking down a pooling equilibrium into a separating equilibrium by using game theory. In our book Think Like a Freak, we give this practice a different name. We call it “teaching your garden to weed itself.” And that’s what today’s show is about. Let’s begin with two men, separated by many centuries. King Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem and was known throughout the land for his wisdom.             David Lee Roth fronted the rock band Van Halen and was known throughout the land for his prima-donna excess.

[live concert audio with applause]

David Lee ROTH: I’m gonna tell you baby. Rock ‘n’ Roll is my second favorite thing in the whole world.

[“Runnin’ with the Devil” by Van Halen]

DUBNER: Now let me ask you this: what could David Lee Roth and King Solomon possibly have in common? Here are a few possibilities: No. 1: They were both Jewish. No. 2: They both got a lot of girls. No. 3: They both wrote the lyrics to a number-one pop song. And, No. 4: they both dabbled in game theory. Okay, what’s your answer? Trick question: all four are true. No. 1: King Solomon of course was Jewish; so was David Lee Roth. In fact, he says he learned to sing while preparing for his bar mitzvah.

[“Just a Gigolo” by David Lee Roth]

DUBNER: No. 2: Girls, girls, girls. David Lee Roth says he “slept with every pretty girl with two legs in her pants” and “I even slept with an amputee.” King Solomon, according to the Bible, had “seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines.”

[“Jump” by Van Halen]

DUBNER: No. 3: the lyrics to a No. 1 pop song? Yes. David Lee Roth wrote the lyrics for most Van Halen songs, including their only number-one hit, “Jump!” King Solomon, meanwhile, is thought to have written several biblical books, including Ecclesiastes — which the folk singer Pete Seeger used as lyrics to his song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”—which, when recorded by the Byrds in 1965, was a number-one hit.

[BYRDS, Turn! Turn! Turn!]

To everything, turn, turn, turn

there is a season, turn, turn, turn

and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

DUBNER: Which brings us to No. 4, the game theory. The most famous story about King Solomon in the Bible involves two women who come to him with a baby – and a dilemma.

[MUSIC: Gregori Schechter, “With the Rabbi in Palestine - Hora Dance” (from Klezmer Festival Band)]

David SPERLING: These two women come to the king and the first one speaks up and said, “We women we live together, just the two of us, nobody else in the house, no men, just the two of us women.”

DUBNER: That’s David Sperling, a professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College.

SPERLING: “And we both gave birth more or less around the same time.”

DUBNER: Okay, so two women, two newborn babies, in one house. One woman was sleeping next to her baby…

SPERLING: … and she crushed him to death, she rolled over on him and suffocated the kid.

Joseph TELUSHKIN: And in the morning the woman wakes up with a dead baby on her chest.

DUBNER: That’s Joseph Telushkin, author of many books including Jewish Literacy.

TELUSHKIN: But she claims that that isn’t her baby. She claims that the baby that the other woman is holding is the baby. So one woman is saying that it’s her baby and the other woman is saying not he live baby is mine, this woman accidently killed her own baby and then took mine.

SPERLING: It’s a case of she said, she said.

TELUSHKIN: How was Solomon to decide the case?

DUBNER: How was Solomon supposed to decide this case? If only he could create a separating equilibrium.

TELUSHKIN: So finally in a moment of desperation and to the shock of everyone in the court…

SPERLING: He calls for… he says to his servant, “Bring me a sword,” And he says, “Now…”

TELUSHKIN: … “we’ll cut the baby in half, each mother will get half.”

DUBNER: You know what happens next, don’t you?

TELUSHKIN: One mother cries out, “Don’t do that! Don’t do that, you’ll kill the baby!”

SPERLING: The second woman says, “No, go cut the baby up.”

DUBNER: King Solomon doesn’t actually slice the baby in half. He doesn’t have to: because he now knows who the real mother is. How? He figured that the second woman, the one who was cruel enough to go along with his baby-carving plan, was also cruel enough to steal another woman’s child. And, further, he knew that the child’s real mother would rather give up the baby than see it die. King Solomon had set a trap that encouraged the guilty and the innocent to sort themselves out.

TELUSHKIN: I grew up in an era of like Perry Mason shows where often if you’re a smart prosecutor or a smart defense lawyer you’re going to ask your questions in a very provocative way to get the person to finally say something that they, in the normal order of events wouldn’t have been willing to say. And Solomon, by coming up with such a surprising question, was able to do it. It doesn’t make sense that a king would say, “Bring a sword and cut a baby in half.” So it introduces such a surprising and peculiar element that people get shocked. And in their shock they reveal, you know, the expression their true colors. They reveal who they really are.

[MUSIC: Pearl Django, “Rhythm Oil” (from Mystery Pacific)]

DUBNER: So King Solomon was pretty clever. Is it possible that David Lee Roth was even cleverer? By the early 1980s, Van Halen had become one of the biggest rock bands in history, they had these extravagant live shows: a huge stage set, booming audio, and spectacular lighting effects. Their contract carried a 53-page rider that laid out the technical requirements for all this, as well as other demands:

Mike PEDEN: You know, it lists all kinds of food that they want…

DUBNER: Mike Peden worked for a concert promoter in Syracuse, New York.

PEDEN: Let’s see, some of the strange ones… you know, various doughnuts, a dozen hard-boiled eggs. They want Fruit Loops and Raisin Bran. They want real knives and forks, they don’t want plastic ones.

DUBNER: Patrick Whitley was Van Halen’s production manager at the time. Which means he was responsible for that contract rider.

Patrick WHITLEY: And I think I actually typed that sheet…

DUBNER: It looks like an IBM Selectric, maybe? Is that what you owned?

WHITLEY: Yeah. It probably was. Yeah.

DUBNER: Okay, and then I really love that you made sure you got your vegetables, or you made sure that somebody got their vegetables. Even days there were brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, spinach. And then odd days, peas, green beans, corn, carrots, and tomatoes. And on it goes. You needed some whiskey, beer and wine, I gather, yes?

WHITLEY: Of course.

DUBNER: Some KY Jelly. What’s that for?

WHITLEY: For fun.

DUBNER: There was also a section for “munchies.” Here’s Mike Peden again:

PEDEN: …potato chips with assorted dips, nuts, pretzels….

DUBNER: And, in the middle of the munchies section:

PEDEN: M&M’s, and then in capital letters and underlined and in parentheses it says: “WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES.” And then it just goes on to say 12 Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and 12 assorted Dannon yogurt on ice. So, if you’re reading through there you could easily, if you’re not paying attention, skip that.

DUBNER: Mike Peden’s sister, Donna, worked as a caterer on the 1982 Van Halen concert in Syracuse.

PEDEN: So my sister went out and bought, I think, three or four bags of M&M’s, and she sat there and with rubber gloves on removed all of the brown ones. And not happy about it either. She actually hates M&M’s and will not eat any to this day because of that.

[MUSIC: Das Vibenbass, “Shinjuku Ku-Coop” (from Fodakis)]

DUBNER: So why did Mike Peden think that Van Halen demanded that all the brown M&M’s be removed?

PEDEN: Well, we thought that it was just extravagance, that it was just David Lee Roth and Van Halen being David Lee Roth and Van Halen.

DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: was it really just extravagance? David Lee Roth gives his version of the M&M story:

ROTH: This was touted wildly and widely as simple rock start misdemeanor excess, and being abusive of others simply because we could. And who am to get in the way of a good rumor?

DUBNER: And you’ll hear Steve Levitt describe our attempt to teach the garden to weed itself – of terrorists.

Steve LEVITT: Yeah, that was one of my favorite things of all time.

DUBNER: But we didn’t tell the whole story, did we?

LEVITT: No we didn’t, we lied, and that was what was so fun about it

DUBNER: One more thing: if you are not already a subscriber to Freakonomics Radio — you should be. Just sign up, for free, at iTunes, and you’ll get the next episode in your sleep.


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

[MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “Juicy Peach” (from Outcries From A Sea of Red)]

DUBNER: So why did Van Halen require that the brown M&M’s – dark brown and light brown – be removed from the M&M bowl in their backstage munchies? Was it nothing more than rock-star excess – or, perhaps, a clever way of finding out some information that would otherwise be hard to find? Remember, at the time, Van Halen put on one of the most ambitious live rock shows of anyone.

Steve LEMON: There were two names that you as a house guy didn’t want to hear were really coming.

DUBNER: Steve Lemon was a rigger on the Van Halen production crew, suspending the lights and sound equipment above the stage.

LEMON: One was of course KISS and the other one was Van Halen. Because these guys always brought the biggest shows. They were going to challenge you and your local team.

WHITLEY: We would have a thousand lights, which was this magic, sort of amazing number that nobody had ever had. We had more trucks.

DUBNER: Patrick Whitley again, the production manager:

WHITLEY: Towards the ‘84 period, we’d be touring with a rolling stage and a grid to suspend the lights from because the lighting system would move. So we sort of considered ourselves the innovators and the inventors of a lot of the standard practices of how people tour nowadays.

[MUSIC: Pearl Django, “Crooked Heart” (from Systeme D)]

DUBNER: The upside of this innovation was obvious. But there was a downside too: it could be dangerous. You didn’t want a light tower falling on you, or the stage collapsing under the weight of all that gear. To that end, the band had to trust that the local promoter in each city took seriously the contract rider that listed all the technical requirements for this massive stage show.

ROTH: The promoters frequently didn’t read the contract rider and we would have structural, physical issues because, hey, there wasn’t the proper electricity, load bearing, stress, etc.

DUBNER: So David Lee Roth, as he explains in a 2012 video, claims that he came up with a trick – kind of like King Solomon’s trick – to figure out if a promoter had read the rider carefully.

ROTH: If I came backstage, having been one of the architects of this lighting and staging design, and I saw brown M&M’s on the catering table, then guaranteed the promoter had not read the contract rider and we had to do a serious line check because frequently we had danger issues.

[MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “Theme de la Rouge” (from Outcries From A Sea of Red)]

DUBNER: So the brown M&M clause, according to David Lee Roth, at least, wasn’t just a prima donna move. It was a clever way to teach the garden to weed itself – to let a bad concert promoter reveal himself as bad when, of course, he’d never come forward and admit to being bad. Inspired by stories like these – and the bright minds of David Lee Roth and King Solomon and even the medieval priests who may have rigged the ordeals – Steve Levitt and I thought maybe we could entice some bad guys to reveal themselves.

DUBNER: Hey Levitt?


DUBNER: You remember that story we wrote in SuperFreakonomics about why terrorists should buy life insurance?

LEVITT: Yeah, that was one of my favorite things of all time.

DUBNER: But we didn’t tell the whole story, did we?

LEVITT: No we didn’t, we lied, and that was what was so fun about it

DUBNER: Lying, we should say, in the service of a greater good. Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author, had identified many bad guys in the past – cheating schoolteachers, collusive sumo wrestlers – by finding patterns in the data.

LEVITT: The bad guys I’ve caught in the past, it was so easy. It was like shooting ducks in a barrel to catch sumo wrestlers. I mean, the data are right there, you can understand the incentives. It’s a really, really simple problem. And although you know that I don’t actually think that terrorism is a very big problem, and I feel that way too much time, and effort and manpower, and economic distortions happen because of terrorism, just from a purely intellectual perspective. For me, the idea of catching terrorists was really fun, because it was a such an incredibly hard problem.

DUBNER: Now, you had tried, you had met with people like the CIA, for instance in this country before, and that didn’t work out so well did it?

LEVITT: Yeah, no I didn’t really make much headway. I was invited and it was nice, the CIA had me out for the day, and we had a fun time. But I couldn’t convince folks there or at any of the American banks to work with me on my pet idea about catching terrorists using retail banking data until we stumbled on to a British bank that amazingly was willing to give it a run.

DUBNER: So in SuperFreak we describe this algorithm that was loaded into the computers of a big bank and which was able to sift through billions of data points and identify a relatively teeny handful of potentially deadly terrorists.

LEVITT: That’s true.

DUBNER: And there was one variable that we wrote about in SuperFreakonomics that we, I would say, highlighted, above all other variables. And that was whether or not a given bank customer had bought life insurance from that bank. Can you explain that variable and why we presented it in the book as we did?

LEVITT: Yeah, so we even, as you say, not just highlighted, we put it in the subtitle to the book was “Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.” And here was the logic. In general, you wouldn’t think buying life insurance would be a great idea for a terrorist because, number one, they tend not to have strong attachments to other people, and number two even if you did kill yourself, you know, detonating a bomb in the Tube in London, the chances that the life insurance company would actually pay you off in that setting is probably low. So it seems silly to have life insurance if you’re a terrorist. Which is exactly the reason we argue that you should have life insurance, because you have data snoops like us going through the data, and if we see a young man who might potentially be a terrorist but he has life insurance, well it’s not likely that he’s a terrorist because it doesn’t make sense for a terrorist to have life insurance. So it’s a reverse logic of throwing us off the trail. And that is the sort of logic we threw out in the book. Now I have to say it was a little bit uncomfortable at times, because as many astute readers said to us, they said, well wait, that doesn’t make all that much sense to me because most insurance, life insurance policies, if you do commit suicide, as long as it’s been year or two since you bought your policy it’s still covered by the policy and you will get paid. So I don’t really understand what you guys are talking about. So it was a little bit embarrassing that we had to write back and say well you’re right, that is the way these policies work, but maybe it will make sense to you down the road.

DUBNER: And that wasn’t the only kind of challenging part of that because when we went on book tour in the U.K. I guess in 2009 or 2010, you had a lot of people saying to us in interviews on TV and in newspapers and so on, what fresh kind of idiots are you that you would go to the trouble to work for years on an algorithm that would find terrorists and then in the book tell these same people exactly how to evade it, which is to say they should go down to the bank and buy some life insurance?

LEVITT: I know, what kind of horrible, base traitors were we, Dubner, that we worked so hard. And we put together this algorithm and then to just give it away because we wanted to make money selling a book? It was really incredibly damning criticism. I mean how could a person possibly respond to that? We would just kind of hang our head and say, you know, well, you know, and hem and haw. And what could you say? It was true. We were horrible, horrible people.

DUBNER: But there was a bigger truth.

LEVITT: There was. This was actually…I’ve hatched many plans in my life but very few as ambitious and exciting as this one. And it must have been, I don’t know now, seven or eight years ago that I first had the idea that if you wanted to catch terrorists it would be very difficult to do it with data, you really needed the terrorists to raise their hand in the air and announce that they themselves were the terrorists. Okay, but not easy to do that. Why would a terrorist come forward and say they were terrorists? So what it required was a trick. Okay? And this whole thing in the SuperFreakonomics book about life insurance was just a complete and total lie. It was made up from beginning to end. Nobody buys life insurance from their bank. I mean, there was some products that people could buy, but nobody purchased it. I mean I’m guessing that a handful of all of our listeners on this podcast have ever bought life insurance from the bank. So what in the world, why would we make this up, what were we talking about. Well here’s the idea: If nobody buys life insurance from the bank, but we managed to get the tabloids in the U.K. and the TV stations to say look these guys are looking for terrorists, and they say if you’re a terrorist and you buy life insurance then you’ll be off their radar screen. I mean, if I’m not a terrorist, I don’t pay any attention to it. If I’m a terrorist I think twice and I say, hmmm, maybe if I buy life insurance that will get me off their radar screen. And if you are a really, really dumb terrorist, hopefully what you do is you go to the bank and you purchase life insurance. Because of course it’s a trick. And we’re watching to see who, after SuperFreakonomics, comes out and the tabloids write about it shows up at the bank and buys life insurance. And our guess is that the kind of person that buys life insurance when they think it gets you off the hook as a terrorist is much more likely to be a terrorist than a regular person. In other words, by pulling off this scam we manage to get some set of terrorists, the really, really dumb ones, to go to the bank and essentially announce, ‘I am a terrorist.’

DUBNER: Levitt, let me ask you this, so this example of teaching your garden to weed itself with planting this action in the minds of guilty people that only guilty people would respond to, is easily the most outlandish and intricate of all the examples that we’ve given compared to David Lee Roth, and King Solomon, and even compared to the medieval ordeals. This is easily the most intricate. And it seems way beyond anything that the average person would ever need to really think about. But I’m curious, could you distill the lessons that you learned from this trick to give listeners a way to think about a way in which they might someday need, or be able to, teach some kind of garden to weed itself?

LEVITT: Yeah, the teaching the garden to weed itself is the ultimate expression of using incentives. And the basics it comes down to is thinking about a way in which you get people who don’t want to tell you something to tell you something by accident. And there are examples, certainly what we’re doing is to completely original. Police will often keep secret many details of the crime scene in the hope that they can get the potential suspects to start to mention details that they couldn’t possibly know if they hadn’t been there. That’s a great example again of the same idea of how you get people to reveal themselves. I wouldn’t say it’s easy. I wouldn’t say these situations come up often, but it’s a tool. It’s a tool in the toolkit, which says if it’s too hard to figure out who the bad guys are just by snooping around, I need the bad guys to tell me who they are. And again, in every setting it will be different how you do it. But it’s simply the knowledge that that’s your last gasp. When you can’t get people to do it otherwise, you actually have to get them to tell you. It at least is the first step on the path of figuring out a way to get the bad guys to come forward and tell you who they are.

[MUSIC: Greg Ruby, “Look Both Ways” (from Look Both Ways)]

DUBNER: So it’s a good way to “get the bad guys to come forward and tell you who they are.” Fair enough. But let’s not be naive here. Bad guys can teach their garden to weed itself, too. You know the Nigerian e-mail scam? Of course you do. It’s famous: you get an e-mail from some deposed Nigerian government minister who has millions of dollars locked up in some bank and needs help getting it out. Help from you. For which you will, of course, be handsomely rewarded. So here’s a question: if the Nigerian e-mail scam is so famous, why would a Nigerian scammer say he’s from Nigeria? That’s what a Microsoft researcher named Cormac Herley wanted to know. So he investigated. His conclusion? These scammers are actually quite clever. When they send out all those bait e-mails, what are they actually searching for? They are looking for someone so gullible that that person will end up sending thousands of dollars to a faraway stranger based on some kooky e-mail about a fictional fortune. But how are the scammers supposed to sift the truly gullible from everyone else? By sending out such a kooky e-mail that only a gullible person would take it seriously. An e-mail that anyone with an ounce of sense or experience would immediately trash. So think about that the next time you get one of those Nigerian scam e-mails. Your first instinct may have been to think how stupid the scammer is. But now you’ll know better. Now you’ll know that this is exactly the kind of stupid we should all aspire to be.

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Podcast Transcripts"
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Date: Thursday, 03 Jul 2014 13:07

This week’s episode is called “A Better Way to Eat.” (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.)

Kobayashi and Dubner

Stephen Dubner and Takeru Kobayashi.

It features an interview with Takeru Kobayashi, who revolutionized the sport of competitive eating. So you’ll learn plenty about the tactics — physical, mental, and strategic — that Kobi employed while earning six straight victories in the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. (He has also set world records with many other foods.) But the episode isn’t really about competitive eating. It’s about seeing what the rest of us can learn from the breakthroughs that Kobi accomplished in his training and his thinking. If there’s ever someone who truly thinks like a Freak, it’s Takeru Kobayashi.

For instance, he came to the conclusion that most competitive eaters simply didn’t think about the problem properly:

KOBAYASHI: My honest opinion was that people were just eating as an extension of regular eating meals, and it looked like they were all like rushing to try eat more than they normally could. Just one more hot dog, just a little more. And I thought, “Well, if you just look at it as a way of trying to put something in instead of, how much more can I eat than normal,” then it really just takes a few questions and a little research on my part and experimentation to see how far I could actually go.

He went very, very far — much farther, in fact, than anyone might have thought possible. This leads to another element of the Kobi magic: an unwillingness to accept limits or barriers that may not be worth honoring:

KOBAYASHI: I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is. They decide, “I’ve been told this,” or “this is what society tells me,” or they’ve been made to believe something. If every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use that method of thinking [about] everything — the potential of human beings is great, it’s huge, compared to what they actually think of themselves.

Since a 2010 dispute with the Coney Island contest organizers, Kobi has not competed in that contest. But he still eats a huge pile of hot dogs in New York on July 4 — this year at 230 Fifth in Manhattan. If you have any interest at all in competitive eating — or problem solving, or doing away with artificial limits — you owe it to yourself to watch Kobi in person.

Special thanks to Maggie James for translating.

Author: "Stephen J. Dubner" Tags: "Featured Radio Post, Freakonomics Blog, ..."
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Date: Thursday, 03 Jul 2014 13:02

[MUSIC: Vagabond Opera, “Chimeres Be Met” (from The Zeitgeist Beckons)]

Stephen J. DUBNER: Kobi, can you just like count to 10 in your microphone?

Takeru KOBAYASHI: 1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

DUBNER: Maggie, do the same? Or say anything you want, he just needs to get a level. Just keep talking…

Maggie JAMES: 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6…

DUBNER: I’d like you to meet Takeru Kobayashi, known as Kobi, and his translator, Maggie James. I was asking Kobi about his favorite foods …

KOBAYASHI: Yogurt or tofu.

JAMES: Yogurt and tofu.

DUBNER: What kind of tofu?


JAMES: Soft ones.

DUBNER: What’s your favorite kind of steak?

KOBAYASHI: Uh, filet.

DUBNER: Filet? You like filet? No fat. You like lean.


DUBNER:  What’s your favorite fish?

KOBAYASHI: Fish! Salmon.

DUBNER: Salmon. You like the skin or no?


DUBNER: What’s your favorite fruit?

KOBAYASHI: …Strawberries.

DUBNER: Strawberries? Um. How do you feel about hot dogs?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: During this time is actually a time that I don’t want to think about hot dogs that much.


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

[MUSIC: Seks Bomba, “San Mateo Theme Song” (from Thanks and Goodnight)]

DUBNER: Takeru Kobayashi doesn’t like to think about hot dogs much right now because he is preparing to eat a very large pile of them. Not for pleasure. This is what he does for a living. In the world of competitive eating, as the sport is known, Kobi is the biggest star that has ever been.


DUBNER: It began back in Japan. He was a college student at the time, studying economics. A friend signed him up for a televised eating contest.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I really was shocked because at that time I really didn’t think I could eat that much more than the normal person.

DUBNER: But he gave it a try, largely because of the prize money: $5,000 for first place. It was a four-stage eating contest — starting with boiled potatoes and then a seafood bowl, Mongolian mutton barbecue, finishing up with noodles.

DUBNER: Your competitors were also amateurs, right? They weren’t professionals. So did you think you had a chance?


DUBNER: Because why — what did you think that you could do better than the other amateurs? Was it mental. or physical, or strategic?

KOBAYASHI [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Total, I thought I could… somewhere in between…

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: There were players much bigger than I was physically even in Japan so I didn’t think it could be just a physical thing — it had to be total mental and physical.

DUBNER: Kobi studied earlier contests like this one, with qualifying stages. He saw that most people went so hard in the early rounds that even if they did advance, they didn’t have the energy – or the stomach capacity – to finish strong. So he decided to eat just enough at each stage to qualify for the next. And when it came time for the final round, he blasted past the others, and won. Having tasted victory as an amateur competitive eater, Kobi immediately thought about turning pro. The World Cup of competitive eating, as you probably know, is held every summer in New York City …

GEORGE SHEA: …Only one location at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues at Nathan’s Famous. And why do they come? They come for the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest!

DUBNER: At home in Japan, Kobi began to train for Coney Island. American-style hot dogs weren’t available where he lived, so he used sausages made of minced fish. No hot-dog buns either, so he cut bread down to size. He took his training seriously. Very seriously. He began a long series of experiments. For instance: ripping the hot dog and bun in half, before eating it – a move that would come to be known as the Solomon Method, after the Biblical story of King Solomon, who threatened to settle a maternity dispute by slicing a baby in two pieces.

DUBNER: The Solomon had been done before or no?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]


DUBNER: He found another way to speed things up.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Separating the sausage from the bun.


KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Also eating hot dogs two at a time. I don’t mean two sticks at the same time, I mean breaking one in half and eating two, two halves.

DUBNER: The sausage itself, being slick and dense, actually went down pretty easy. But eating a hot dog bun on its own, without the meat, is harder than you’d think. How hard? You may have heard of the Saltine Challenge. Well, next time you want to win a bar bet, try the Hot Dog Bun Challenge. See if you can get someone to try to eat two hot dog buns in one minute, with no beverage. Here, listen to our Freakonomics Radio production team try it. This is David Herman doing the eating with Gretta Cohn, Suzie Lechtenberg, and Greg Rosalsky providing commentary.

[MUSIC: Summer Villains, “Die a Whig” (from Spacecramp)]

David HERMAN: Ok, I am ready.

Greg ROSALSKY: And, go!

HERMAN: Oh yeah it gets dry!

Gretta COHN: So he’s got half of a half of a bun in his mouth.

ROSALSKY: 35 seconds to go.

Suzie LECHTENBERG: Swallow it.

HERMAN: Blagh! I was so confident.

ROSALSKY: 4, 3, 2, 1 …and it’s over.

COHN: Put down the bun.

LECHTENBERG: Not even one.

ROSALSKY: Not even one, wow.

HERMAN: I am ashamed.

DUBNER: So, to fight the dry-bun problem, Kobi came up with a novel solution.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Dunking.

DUBNER: That’s right, dunking. As he fed himself the bunless, broken hot dogs with one hand, he used the other hand to dunk the bun in water. Then he’d squeeze out the excess water and smush the bun into his mouth, kind of like a bun ball. Not only did this make eating faster, but now he didn’t have to take time out between dogs to drink water.

DUBNER: So breaking, separating, dunking. What about the shake?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I had never seen that before. Maybe somebody was shaking but I had never seen that.

DUBNER: This became known as the Kobayashi Shake.

ANNOUNCERS: Kobayashi now look at him shaking almost like Axl Rose on the stage at the Garden. Did you see the wiggle get there for Kobayashi? Just moving it around like someone put an ice cubedown your back, look at that Kobayashi Shake. Chugging those hot dogs like a freshman at a keg party it’s unbelievable.

DUBNER: Kobi videotaped his training sessions. He charted all his data and analyzed it. He wanted to find out what worked and, just as important, what didn’t work. At one point, he thought he should chew each dog very vigorously – but he realized this not only took too long but was also bad for his jaw. He was tireless in his experimentation.

DUBNER: Why do you think others before you hadn’t experimented so much?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Maybe because they are not as serious as I am? Maybe that’s the only honest answer.

DUBNER: How did  you get so serious?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Simply that I when I tried it I thought the physical action felt like – this is a sport.

DUBNER: A sport, and nobody had treated it like a sport before.

JAMES: And I simply wanted to be number one in the world at this.

DUBNER: Um, no offense but you sound crazy it sounds nuts. And I say that with all due respect because you know how much I love you and respect what you’ve done, but what I mean by this is that you were bringing a level of scientific inquiry to an activity that nobody had bothered before. That’s what I mean by nuts. So did you think it was nuts? Or did it make perfect sense to you?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Now I guess I’m a little older and more mature now because now I can hear that and actually say like, oh and laugh with you but at that time there was definitely not even a miniscule part like a  speck of me that would have thought that that was nonsense, it just made sense.

[MUSIC: Espionage, “Girl From Orange County”]

DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: how does Kobi do at the Coney Island hot-dog contest?

WCBS: The kid is incredible. Total beating of the Americans.  He was like a conveyor belt, he was just putting them in two at a time.

DUBNER: And, assuming that you are not interested in following in Kobi’s footsteps specifically, is there something more general that can be learned from his mastery of competitive eating?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is. They decide I’ve been told this, or this is what society tells me, or they’ve been made to believe something.

DUBNER: And one more thing: if you don’t already subscribe to Freakonomics Radio — well, I think you should. It’s free. Sign up at iTunes, and you’ll get the next episode in your sleep.


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

[MUSIC: Seks Bomba, “Theme From ‘Mondo Edgar’” (from Operation B.O.M.B.A.)]

DUBNER: Today we are telling the story of Takeru Kobayashi, who dreamed a dream of eating more hot dogs than any human being in history. This happens every Fourth of July at Coney Island, in New York City.

WCBS: Nathan’s annual hot dog eating contest is an international event. Champions from all over the world converging on Coney Island.

DUBNER: The contest had been going on for roughly four decades. The world record: 25-1/8 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. 25-1/8 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes! Just picture that for a minute. There aren’t many rules. The competitors can have as much of whatever beverage they want. They can put condiments on the dogs – but no self-respecting eater is going to waste time, or stomach capacity, on ketchup. All the dogs and buns that enter your body must – well, they must stay in your body. If not – this is known in the sport as a reversal of fortune — you can be disqualified. Okay, so it’s July 4, 2001. Kobi  is 23 years old. He’s only 5 foot 8, 130 pounds.

DUBNER: When you showed up that first time to compete did you feel that you belonged on stage with the other competitors? Did you feel you could, you were justified to be there?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I actually didn’t think even about that. I wasn’t thinking about that at all but I was full of the feeling of, I have come here to win.

[MUSIC: Binary, “In Hot Pursuit”]

DUBNER: So the bell rings

ARCHIVAL: 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

DUBNER: And you start to eat and  for 12 minutes you eat and you break and you separate, and you slurp and you dunk and you smush and you swallow and you shake and you do all that. And then the bell rings. And then you see your number. Yes? Were you paying attention to your number before that or did you only see it at the very end?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I only saw it at the end. I wasn’t looking at all at the number.

DUBNER: And what was the number?


WCBS: The Americans just dropped their dogs in awe. The clear cut wiener: Kobayashi, who inhaled 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Shattering the world record. The kid is incredible. Total beating of the Americans.  He was like a conveyor belt, he was just putting them in two at a time. I saw he was around 30 when I was at around 8. I took my shirt off, started waving the white flag.  I can’t believe it, a new world record. 50!

DUBNER: 50…And the previous record was 25-1/8 right?


DUBNER: So you doubled the world record. So nobody doubles any world record, ever!

And what did you think then? What did you think when you saw that number, of 50?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I was actually shocked. I was not imagining at all that I would eat double, so it was super surprising to me.

DUBNER: Everyone was surprised. Some people were skeptical, wondering if Kobi was playing by the rules …

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: They said they that took me to outer space and some aliens had given the man two stomachs.  Um. Oh, he’s taking muscle relaxers.

DUBNER: That you were doping. Did you take muscle relaxers?


DUBNER: Do you have two stomachs?


JAMES: He thought about it.

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

DUBNER: He won Coney Island six straight years. And a lot of other eating contests too:

MAN: 106 tacos!

CHEERLEADERS: Go, go, Kobayashi, Go, go, Kobayashi. Go, Go…

WOMAN: 337 wings.

CHEERLEADERS: Go, go, Kobayashi, Go, go, Kobayashi.

MAN: We are setting a world record for the most grilled cheese sandwiches eaten in one minute.

CHEERLEADERS: Go, go, Kobayashi, Go, go, Kobayashi.

MAN: He took down an entire 12 inch pizza in one minute flat.

CHEERLEADERS: Go, go, Kobayashi, Go, go, Kobayashi.

MAN: Let’s make some noise for the one and only the culinary Houdini the best eater on earth Mr. Takeru Kobayashi! [Crowd roar!]

DUBNER: Kobi was not, however, unbeatable.

DUBNER: Tell me about the bear.


FOX TV: And now, introducing to my right, his opponent, the beast, he descends from Kodiak Island, Alaska.

DUBNER: Kobi tried to beat the bear in a contest taped for Fox TV.

FOX TV: This beast stands over eight feet tall and weighs in tonight at 1,089 pounds. He can digest over 60 pounds of food in a 24-hour period. He possesses the ultimate appetite for destruction! Meet the beast! The Alaskan Cruncher!

DUBNER: Even against a bear, Kobi thought he would win.

FOX TV: Now again the contest begins as soon as the bear eats the first hot dog…and it is underway. There we go…

DUBNER: In this case the dogs had no buns, right — why was that? Were the buns bad for the bear?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I was told the bear does not eat buns.

DUBNER: Well, tough for the bear! The bear had a better lawyer than you had apparently. So, was there a rehearsal?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Yes. there was a rehearsal

DUBNER: What happened at the rehearsal?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I won at the rehearsal.

FOX TV: When the bear came out I saw a flash of fear for a second in Kobayashi’s eyes…

DUBNER: In the contest itself what happened?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: When the real time came for it the bear was really quick, like very fast. I was so shocked I suddenly kind of almost panicked a little bit.

FOX TV: I don’t see how he can beat this bear….And that is it. We have a winner, the bear, the beast has won, The Alaskan Cruncher is our new champion. [ROAR!]

DUBNER: The bear beat you, the bear won. Did you ever figure out how the bear did so well in competition versus the practice?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES:  Of course that was the first question that I thought, I had to know. So I asked and I was told that the bear keeper had not given him anything to eat for like a day until coming in …

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: So they had actually kind of made the bear very hungry, and when it came in, it was starving. My competitor was a wild beast and animals when they are hungry they are different living things, they are …

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I’m not a strong eater because I’m hungry. Whereas I was competing against a beast that was hungry.

FOX TV: Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you — tonight the bear got Kobayashi. [ROAR!].

DUBNER: How do you handle defeat?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I always change my mentality very quickly. Simply said, sometimes you win because someone is having a bad day and sometimes someone beats you because you are having a bad day. Even winning or losing doesn’t necessarily even mean really that you are the best. So when you look at the long run you can’t think about you and competing against a rival or rivals. That doesn’t even tell you 100% that you are the best. What you can only do is compare yourself to yourself and try see how far you can actually go.

[MUSIC: Seks Bomba, “She Had Her Suspicions” (from Thanks and Goodnight)]

DUBNER: So what did Kobayashi do that was different than everyone before him? Here’s one thing: he redefined the problem he was trying to solve.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: The key to me was that I had to change the mentality that it was a sport. It wasn’t having a meal. It was to me I had to think this is a sport it has nothing to do with how you normally enjoy a meal. It’s just a physical action.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: My honest opinion was that people were just eating as an extension of regular eating meals and it looked like they were all like rushing to try eat more than they normally could. Just one more hot dog, just a little more. And I thought well if you just look at it as a way of trying to put something in instead of, how much more can I eat than normal, then it really just takes a few questions and a little research on my part and experimentation to see how far I could actually go.

DUBNER: Here’s what the other competitive eaters were asking themselves: how can I fit more hot dogs in my stomach? Kobi asked a different question – only slightly different, perhaps, at least to a layperson, but it changed everything. His question was: how can I make one hot dog easier to eat? But it wasn’t just that. If everyone before him was asking the wrong question, he thought, then maybe he shouldn’t give much credence to the existing world record. Maybe it was an artificial barrier that he should just bust right through …

DUBNER: This contest had been going on for 40 years — why is that it took until you to change the mental and strategic approach to this sport?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I think people have to have a reason to rethink what could be wrong if they only see someone, if 40-something years, or more, people only see someone eating 25 is the limit then someone who can eat 20 might think wow, if I just eat five more I could actually do that and no one would think anything else can be done. But if you see someone suddenly come and eat 50 then everyone knows that there must be a different approach to the problem. And until something like that happens, people don’t question. So maybe I gave them a reason for everyone at the same moment to rethink the problem again.

DUBNER: So I’m curious if you could look around the world, at whether it’s something having to do with money or government or education — can you point to something where if people could only rethink the problem, redefine the problem, like you did and not accept the limit of the old world record like you did, can you think of an instance where it might not be so hard to do that where we’d all be better off if people could do that?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I think it should be used for everything. I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is. They decide I’ve been told this, or this is what society tells me, or they’ve been made to believe something. If every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use that method of thinking to everything the potential of human beings is great, it’s huge, compared to what they actually think of themselves. That is a factor that…If everyone could use it for everything, everything could be much better.

[MUSIC: Heavy G and the Boogaloo Communicators, “Theme from Green Scarab” (from Makin’ It Happen)]

DUBNER: There’s a good bit of evidence that Kobi is right about how artificial barriers can hold us back. He no longer laps the field in competitive-eating contests. In fact, Kobi was beaten for several years Coney Island by an eater named Joey Chestnut – who’s still the reigning champion – and the guys who used to eat just 15 or 20 hot dogs now routinely eat 30 and 40. Some of them use Kobi’s methods; all of them benefit from knowing that the old limits weren’t real. As for Kobi himself? He lives in New York now, but still travels the world, eating for a living. But you won’t find him in Coney Island on July 4th any more. A few years back, he got into a contract dispute with the organizers. So he’s started his own hot-dog eating contest, which also takes place in New York on July 4th. This year he’ll be eating at the Rooftop of “230 5th” bar in Manhattan. These days, the hot-dog eating contest runs only 10 minutes – but the numbers are even higher.

DUBNER: How many do you think you’ll eat this year?

KOBAYASHI: More than 72.

DUBNER: More than 72. So more than six dozen hot dogs and buns in ten minutes on 4th of July. What will you do then on the 5th of July?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Just resting. I think just resting.

DUBNER: How long does it take to recover?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: It depends on how I feel, but…I like to rest for at least half a day.

DUBNER: Oh that’s it? You must be a great athlete because most of us with even three hot dogs we need to rest for a whole day. So not only are you better on the front end — you’re better on the back end too.


Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Podcast Transcripts"
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Date: Monday, 30 Jun 2014 12:51

We just released our first installment of the Think Like a Freak Book Club. How does this work? You send in your questions/comments/complaints about the book and we respond in our podcast.

The first installment (“How to Screen Job Applicants, Act Your Age, and Get Your Brain Off Autopilot“) covered Chapters 1-3 of Think. Now it’s time for you to send in questions for Chapters 4, 5, and 6 (see Table of Contents, below). If your question ends up in the podcast, we’ll send you a signed copy of Think Like a Freak or a limited edition Think Like a Freak t-shirt. So fire away!

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 9.50.30 AM

You can also pick an item from our swag page, or opt for a Freakonomics Radio t-shirt.


Here’s the Table of Contents for Chapters 4, 5, and 6:

4. Like a Bad Dye Job, the Truth Is in the Roots

A bucket of cash will not cure poverty and a planeload of food will not cure
famine . . . How to find the root cause of a problem . . . Revisiting the abortion-crime link . . . What does Martin Luther have to do with the German economy? . . . How the “Scramble for Africa” created lasting strife . . . Why did slave traders lick the skin of the slaves they bought? . . . Medicine vs. folklore . . . Consider the ulcer . . . The first blockbuster drugs . . . Why did the young doctor swallow a batch of dangerous bacteria? . . . Talk about gastric upset! . . . The universe that lives in our gut . . . The power of poop.

5. Think Like a Child

How to have good ideas . . . The power of thinking small . . . Smarter kids at $15 a pop . . . Don’t be afraid of the obvious . . . 1.6 million of anything is a lot . . . Don’t be seduced by complexity . . . What to look for in a junkyard . . . The human body is just a machine . . . Freaks just want to have fun . . . It is hard to get good at something you don’t like . . . Is a “no-lose lottery” the answer to our low savings rate? . . . Gambling meets charity . . . Why kids figure out magic tricks better than adults . . . “You’d think scientists would be hard to dupe” . . . How to smuggle childlike instincts across the adult border.

6. Like Giving Candy to a Baby

It’s the incentives, stupid! . . . A girl, a bag of candy, and a toilet . . . What financial incentives can and can’t do . . . The giant milk necklace . . . Cash for grades . . . With financial incentives, size matters . . . How to determine someone’s true incentives . . . Riding the herd mentality . . . Why are moral incentives so weak? . . . Let’s
 steal some petrified wood! . . . One of the most radical ideas in the history of philanthropy . . . “The most dysfunctional $300 billion industry in the world” . . . A one-night stand for charitable donors . . . How to change the frame of a relationship . . . Ping-Pong diplomacy and selling shoes . . . “You guys are just the best!” . . . The customer is a human wallet . . . When incentives backfire . . . The “cobra effect” . . . Why treating people with decency is a good idea.

Author: "Stephen J. Dubner" Tags: "Featured Post, Freakonomics Blog, questi..."
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Date: Thursday, 26 Jun 2014 11:26

Think-Like-a-Freak 3D smallThis week’s episode is the first installment of our Think Like a Freak Book Club (we plan to do three). It’s called “How to Screen Job Applicants, Act Your Age, and Get Your Brain Off Autopilot.” (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.)

Here’s how the Think Like a Freak Book Club works: readers and listeners send in their questions about specific chapters of the book, and Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt answer them on the podcast. This episode covers chapters 1-3: “What Does It Mean to Think Like a Freak?”; “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language”; “What’s Your Problem?” You all sent in some really great questions. Among the ones that Dubner and Levitt take on in the podcast:

  • How can I get my brain off auto-pilot?
  • Why are most companies so resistant to change?
  • Has there ever been a society that succeeded in putting the collective above the individual?

And this one: “What kind of question should you ask job candidates to see if they’re too prone to b.s.-ing?” As you’ll hear in the podcast:

LEVITT: I would say what the interviewer’s going to have for lunch that day. Because it’s completely stupid.

DUBNER: That’s pretty good. And totally unanswerable.

Thanks to everyone for the questions. If yours was used in the podcast, we’ll send you your choice of an autographed copy of Think Like a Freak or a limited edition Think Like a Freak t-shirt.

And now it’s time to send in your questions for the next Book Club episode. You can either leave them in the comments section below or e-mail them to radio (at) freakonomics.com. The next episode will cover chapters 4-6: “Like a Bad Dye Job, the Truth Is in the Roots”; “Think Like a Child”; and “Like Giving Candy to a Baby.” Thanks in advance.

Author: "Gretta Cohn" Tags: "Featured Radio Post, Freakonomics Blog, ..."
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Date: Thursday, 26 Jun 2014 10:52

[MUSIC: Johnny Sangster, “Fastbook”]

Stephen J. DUBNER: Hey podcast listeners. Freakonomics Radio is a public-radio show. Which means that you, the listening public, are a main source of our financial support. So please go to Freakonomics.com and click on the “Donate” button, which we have temporarily made so gigantic as to be unavoidable. We’ll send you some Freakonomics swag for donations above a certain level and if you do this right away, you’ll also become eligible to win a 13-inch Macbook Air, donated by Tekserve, the Apple specialty store here in New York.  You don’t even have to give to enter the contest, but of course we hope you will — at Freakonomics.com. Thanks!

[MUSIC: Seks Bomba, “The Cat” (from Operation B.O.M.B.A)]

Steve LEVITT: Hey, Dubner.

DUBNER: Hey, Levitt. How’s it going?

LEVITT: It’s going good.

DUBNER: So, are you feeling recovered from book tour yet?


DUBNER: I thought it was interesting, as much as you whined and complained on this podcast about how much you hate the book tour, it actually worked out beautifully, didn’t it? Do you want to tell the people how beautifully that worked out?

LEVITT: Oh, so everywhere we went, people were very gentle with me. They gave me presents. Thank you very much for the coffee and thank you very much for the In-N- Out Burger gift certificate that I used.

DUBNER: Bacon. There were plates of bacon on stage with us when we gave talks.

LEVITT: And poor Dubner took the brunt of it everybody slapped you around and let me do my thing. It couldn’t have been better.

DUBNER: They were like, “oh, Steve Levitt, thank you so much for coming to San Francisco. I know you don’t like to leave your room.” That was a great piece of game theory, because you have no problem getting out there. You like to talk to people. You say you don’t.

LEVITT: No, I like to be in my room.

DUBNER: You say you do.

LEVITT: I only like to be in my room.

DUBNER: Now, what would you say would be a highlight of the book tour, or a lowlight. It could be either.

LEVITT: Um…let me think. The other day a stranger rolled down his widow of his car and yelled to me, “hey I loved the tipping podcast.” That’s bad, that’s when we’ve got to retire when strangers are rolling down their window and knowing who we are, that’s when we’ve got to be careful.


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

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

DUBNER: Steve Levitt and I just got back from our book tour for Think Like a Freak. Honestly, it was a blast. Yes, long days, lots of travel — but c’mon: big auditoriums full of people willing to sit and listen to what you have to say? Not bad. The most surprising thing was when we started asking the audience how many of them regularly listen to the podcast. About 90 percent of the hands went up — whether in New York or California or the U.K. It was amazing! Although it did make me wonder if we didn’t make this podcast, if our book tour would happen in much smaller auditoriums. So thanks for coming out, thanks for listening — and thanks for sending in your questions for this first installment of our Think Like a Freak book club. We’re starting today with Chapters 1 through 3. Chapter 1 is “What Does It Mean to Think Like a Freak?” Chapter 2 is called: “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language” — also known as “I don’t know,” and how our reluctance to admit what we don’t know keeps us from learning. And Chapter 3 is called “What’s Your Problem?” in which we encourage readers to redefine the problem they are trying to solve. And remember: if your question makes it onto the show, we will send you your choice of an autographed copy of Think Like a Freak or a limited edition Think Like a Freak t-shirt. So listen up!

DUBNER: So, Levitt, let’s start with Andrea Kate Crary from Fargo, North Dakota. Andrea writes, “you asserted the most important idea in your new book is the underlying principle that to think like a freak you must in fact think. I heartily agree with you on the importance of thinking, and wonder if you have any suggestions on how? It seems to me that my brain defaults to autopilot. Is there a way to reset my brain’s default position?” Levitt, what do you say to Andrea?

LEVITT: I would say to Andrea that I think autopilot is indeed the right default for the brain, because the world’s too complicated and there’s too many things to do to try and really think your way around everything. What I would suggest Andrea try to do is at certain moments when it seems like the marginal benefit of thinking is high she should see if she can switch her brain into a thinking mode. And then kick in the thinking when it really will be to your advantage. And so, for instance, part of thinking is just finding the quiet time to do it. And so maybe a place to start would be when you see problems or questions that you think might use thinking, file them away in your brain, and when you have quiet time when you’re doing laundry or you’re trying to rock a baby to sleep or something like that, then take those moments to actually go back and try to engage your brain. And just do it a little bit at a time, and see if anything good comes out. I mean, good ideas are hard to come by. Dubner and I spend a lot of time thinking and we’re lucky if we have one or two good ideas a year. So I think the expectations shouldn’t be too high.

DUBNER: Yeah, and I would also say to Andrea that it’s a great idea to just work hard to spend time with people that aren’t a lot like you, whether it’s vocationally, or age wise, or politically, or religiously, geographically or whatever, because it’s amazing how simply doing that will change, or broaden, or give you an angle on a problem that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise. And the more we look at the way people group around groupthink and herd mentality, one reason it’s hard to come up with a good solution to a problem is you’re just hearing this kind of siloed echo chamber of everybody else that you hang out with. So if you can seek out people who look at things really differently from you, whether you’re an artist and you don’t hang out with data people or politically left and don’t talk to people on the right, etc., I think that’s a way to get a leg up.

[MUSIC: The Juice To Make It Happen, “Horny Toad”]

DUBNER: Levitt, Michael Carley who is associate director of the Institutional Research and Reporting something…at Kern Community College in Bakersfield, California, writes to say this, “I work as an educational researcher. How would we, in hiring employees for our department, find those with the humility to say when they don’t know the answer to a question? A lot of time is wasted when employees plod along in ignorance rather than admitting limitations.” Levitt you have some kind of good trick for employers to screen for that ability?

LEVITT: Well the first thing that comes to mind is in the course of the interview, what most people do is fake their way. There’s a general sense, and it came up on the book tour three or four times where people said, “well, if I say I don’t know I will never get the job.”

DUBNER: And you’re sympathetic to that issue.

LEVITT: I do think that actually it probably is true. If the people who are hiring you are of the mind that you should never, ever say I don’t know when they themselves never ever say I don’t know, then saying I don’t know is not a great idea before you get the job. Now, once you have the job you have a little bit more time and leeway to try and change people’s views and to show people that when you say I don’t know, and then you go back to the data and you figure out the answer, and you come back a week later, or an hour later, or a month later, and say I now know, that people will be impressed and will come to respect you more. But you don’t get that second chance, you don’t get that week or the month if you’re doing the interview. But clearly if you want to attract people who will say I don’t know, the interview process is the right way to do it, or even before that in some sort of an online application to ask the kinds of questions which will elicit different answers from people who are liars and fakers and people who aren’t. I mean, the example we give in the beginning of the chapter on, “I don’t know,” is about children and they’re asked in a psychology study to respond to questions, which they simply can’t answer given the–

DUBNER: Patently unanswerable questions, right?

LEVITT: Exactly. And so one could imagine asking completely unanswerable questions  in an interview and seeing how people respond.

DUBNER: Hey, let me ask you this, what about combining two, two ideas we’ve talked about in the past, unanswerable questions and the need to say I don’t know, and kind of this burning desire to make predictions about any and everything. What about that? What about asking potential employees to make predictions, which you could kill two birds with one stone. You could see how willing they are to admit they don’t know, and you could see how they feel about this relatively impossible task generally of predicting the future.

LEVITT: I think that’s a good idea.

DUBNER: What’s the question you write, what do you ask them to predict?

LEVITT: I would say what the interviewer’s going to have for lunch that day. Because it’s completely stupid and  pointless.

DUBNER: And totally unanswerable.

LEVITT: And completely unanswerable.

DUBNER: Although you could say you look like a pretty chubby fellow so I’m going to say you’re going to have some pasta.

LEVITT: But I think it’s the kind of reaction someone would have to that question, it’s so nonsensical that it’s a signal to anyone who has common sense that you can’t possibly expect a serious response to it. I think it will pick up on other things, too, which is just common sense and the ability to understand how humanity works. If you ask some question about what do you think our revenues will be in the year whatever, then it’s actually sounds like you could make a prediction.

DUBNER: Well it’s an invitation to fake it, too, whereas this one’s giving you the option to take the high road.

LEVITT: Yeah, now the other thing that interviewers always do, and I don’t know if this works or not, would be to say, could you tell me about a time in your career in which you have been faced with a question you don’t know the answer to and you simply said I don’t know and how did it turn out. That would be the more traditional way to do it, maybe you could do both.

[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “Pistol Alien” (from Let’s Cool One)]

DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: what’s the biggest reason that so many companies operate on gut instinct instead of using the data?

LEVITT: I never would have thought this before I started working with companies. I never would have imagined that it is an I.T. problem.

DUBNER: And one question that is truly inspiring for both me and Levitt:

LEVITT: I do love Glenn’s question. I think this is super smart and really interesting and important. I think it’s great.

DUBNER: And one more thing:  if you are not already a subscriber to Freakonomics Radio — well, you should be. Just sign up, for free, at iTunes, and you’ll get the next episode in your sleep.


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

[MUSIC: Judson Lee Music, “Party With Me”]

DUBNER: Welcome back to the first installment of the Think Like a Freak book club. Today we’re taking your questions about chapters 1-3.

DUBNER: Uh, Levitt, Mikhail Marchenko from Lenexa, Kansas, I believe, writes to say, “In your book you use a metaphor, a football player, meaning soccer playing that’s faced with a tough decision that can have a lasting impact on his professional career, the penalty kick.” So incidentally Levitt, have you caught World Cup fever? Are you watching hours and hours and hours?

LEVITT: I did watch that crazy game where Holland beat Spain five to one.

DUBNER: Oh yeah. So Mikhail goes on to say, “You write that humans are motivated by myriad things, chief among which is pride and reputation. As you simply yet so elegantly,” thank you very much, “put it, none of us want to look stupid.” So this is about the difference between acting in your own interest versus acting in the public interest, to shorthand it a lot. Now, Mikhail asks, “Has there ever been a society that strongly believed in the greater good of the community and which punished those who went against the grain and acted to benefit themselves instead?” So Levitt, I have to say my first thought was well that sounds a little bit like the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union, which by the sound of his name Marchenko, Mikhail Marchenko, this listener is probably a little bit familiar with…I mean, it’s interesting to me that he didn’t bring it up, but it also brings to mind for a me a lot of religious communities. You know, ultra orthodox Jews even in 21st century America and a lot of the Anabaptist communities like the Amish, and Bruderhof and Mennonite. But Levitt, I’m really curious to know if you know anything about this, societies that kind of, you know, reward the communal, punish the individual goal seeking and whether…Yeah, that’s all.

LEVITT: Yeah, I think you’re right, I think that was one of the premises of communism and socialism was to put the collective above the individual. But the problem with those systems is it’s very hard to incentivize individuals when the benefits go to others. If you think about it, corporations have a little bit of the same flavor. In many corporations, the financial incentives of individuals are not that strong, so the difference in the profit that accrues to the company can be 50 times, 100 times, my own private benefit of the actions that I take, and then it’s hard to incentivize people. I mean, maybe the ultimate society that has managed to succeed in putting the collective above the individual are things like ants and termites, right? Because I mean, that’s exactly what happens in these colonies. It’s because the ants don’t have enough brains to do anything different. But really I think in bees, I mean, bees sting and die because of it, but they’re programed to act on behalf of the community.

DUBNER: Since you brought us to corporations and corporate behavior, let’s go to, here’s a related question from someone named Tracy Lum who writes to say…And by the way, every person, so the minute you hear your name on this program, that means you’re going to get some Think Like A Freak swag, so you should be very happy about that, not just for the pride but for the avarice part of the mention. So, Tracy Lum writes to say, “You write that one of the reasons that people ignore data in favor of gut instinct is tradition and resistance to change. In an ever changing, competitive, mostly capitalist economy, I’m wondering how and why these types of organizations and individuals survive?” So that’s really what you’re talking about, Levitt, to some degree, which is that in companies, corporations, the boss has a different set of incentives, perhaps, than almost everybody else. So tell us about that. You’ve been spending a lot of time in corporations consulting with them. Do you A: see a resistance to data generally, and if so do you see it higher or lower down the ladder? And do you think that there is a split between the incentives for the people in the corner office and the people on the ground?

LEVITT: So that’s a great question and I might challenge the premise. The premise of the question is that these old organizations that are resistant to data will survive or are surviving. But in fact they’re certainly not thriving. And what I see all the time is the incredible difficulty that companies, and really people, because companies are made up of people, have in adapting to new situations. And it really, it’s really amazing. If you look back at what the 50 biggest companies were in the world 100 years ago, I mean, very few of them exist. Other people have looked at this, I haven’t looked at this in detail. But companies have very short life spans. Relative to, say, universities, the same universities that were the most highly ranked 100 years ago are still almost without exception, maybe Stanford has gotten better in the U.S., but in general, universities all stick around and companies don’t. And I think it’s because the university environment doesn’t change very much, but the corporate environment, what consumers want and what producers make changes a lot. And it’s hard for companies to keep up. What I really believe, though, is that the importance of data and the availability of data has gotten so much greater. And the ability to do experiments, that the new wave of companies, companies like Amazon that do experimentation are just going to devastate the old way of doing things. And the world is changing, it’s not just because of data, it’s not just because of experimentation. But there happens to be a correlation between the kinds of companies that are new and innovative and their use of data. And it’s absolutely transforming the landscape.

DUBNER: So that being the case, let me just go back to Tracy’s question, which you didn’t quite get to, you didn’t quite answer, which is why are…Okay, let’s say you’re one of these non-transformative, hyper traditional firms and you’re presumably not an idiot. And you see that firms that don’t adapt will suffer and that part of adapting is to let go, you know not rely necessarily on gut instinct that’s informed by tradition. Why is it so hard for leadership to change? That’s really the question that Tracy’s asking.

LEVITT: Yeah, I think the hardest single thing is that even if you have the desire, which you may or may not have, to be data driven, that the existing systems…I never would have thought this before I started working with companies. I never would have imagined that it is an I.T. problem that you simply cannot get the data you want, and the data are held in 27 different data sets that have different identifiers, so you simply…So sometimes when my little consulting firm TGG comes into a company we’ll spend something like three or six person months working with a company of trying to just put together a data set to do a basic analysis that I think many listeners would think wow I would think that a big, fancy company would be able to do this with the push of a button. But it really is… the I.T. support and the complexity in these big firms blows your mind about how hard it is to do the littlest, simple things.

[MUSIC: The San Andreas Fault, “Sympatico” (from Encantada)]

DUBNER: Levitt, um, so let’s end with one more question here I think is a nice ending. Glenn Hall writes to say, “I read the chapter of Kobayashi.” That’s Takeru Kobayashi. “And how he smashed the hot dog eating record. I noted your comment about how he didn’t think about the previous world record of 25, or else he may have stopped at 28 or 30 instead of making it to 50.” We don’t say he would have stopped at 28 or 30, he just wouldn’t have been able to get so high if he had honored that barrier of 25. So Glenn continues to write, “I have been thinking about this for quite some time in regard to a person’s chronological age. In the United States the retirement age has remained at 65 in spite of the large increase in life expectancy. Does this set up an artificial barrier relating to a person’s productive life. I am well into middle age, yet the idea of an end game at 65 has never entered my mind. How much of the aging process is physiological and how much is psychological due to culturally induced artificial factors, such as the 65-year-old retirement age. I am currently engaged in an experiment trying to ‘think myself younger’ and it seems to be working.” That’s what Glenn Hall writes. So Levitt, I have to say, I love this question. I love the idea of artificial barriers and ignoring them. And I know you, kind of, you’re not so keen on that idea yourself are you?

LEVITT: I’m not as keen as you are, but I do love Glenn’s question. I think this is super smart and really interesting and important. I think it’s great. And it’s probably true. I mean, everything he says is true, that we set up these retirement ages decades ago when people were much less healthy and lived shorter. And, I don’t know… I think, I do think that it’s easy when you’re an adult to just get caught in the trap of feeling old, and getting afraid of everything. So I think a lot of things are under the control of people. And you see it all the time.

DUBNER: The thing that his question makes me think is that yeah, as you mentioned, longevity has increased so much. I think in the 20th century life expectancy in the U.S. at birth doubled. Which is just an aston — That will never happen again. I think it’s safe to say that will never happen again. So to me one of the really interesting…

LEVITT: Wait, can I interrupt you on that?

DUBNER: Sure. Yep.

LEVITT: It’s not just longevity, it’s the state of your body at the time you’re 65. I think we’ve had at least as big of improvements…When you were 65 in the old days and you had worked in some kind of horrible factory 12 hours a day, you were completely broken. But now, I think people at 65 are great…

DUBNER: Well and a much smaller share of the population if doing work that’s so physically hard.

LEVITT: Exactly. It’s just a combination. So just working the farm. When you had to like…It was incredibly brutal work as you know having grown up on a farm. So it’s as much the increase in longevity as the state of the body and the quality of life that you can have at 65. But it’s a different question of whether it’s just fun to stop working and to do 100 other things that you couldn’t do when you worked. That’s just, I don’t think either of us are saying, no retirement is bad. I think that what Glenn’s saying, which is true, is there is no reason that if you love what you do in your work that you couldn’t still do it. My dad’s almost 80 and he’s still a practicing doctor because he loves it and he’s not sure what he’d do otherwise. And I think that’s exactly the right attitude. And my dad still runs three to five miles a day. And he acts like he’s young, and he is young. He seems young, you know… so… I think Glenn should get both a book and a signed t-shirt, whatever we do for that kind of insightful question. We didn’t give a great answer. I think his question is better than any answer we could give.

[MUSIC: The San Andreas Fault, “Go Sleepy” (from Encantada)]

DUBNER: Okay, Levitt. We will send Glenn a t-shirt and a signed copy of Think Like a Freak. And we’ll send something to Tracy, Michael, Mikhail, and Andrea. So keep an eye on your mailboxes, people  — and we’ll keep an eye on ours as well. Drop us a line at radio@freakonomics.com with your questions for the Think Like a Freak Book Club. Up next will be Chapters 4 through 6. Those are “Like a Bad Dye Job, the Truth Is in the Roots,” “Think Like a Child,” and “Like Giving Candy to a Baby” — original title was “It’s the Incentives, Stupid.” So send us some questions and you’ll hear that episode in a few weeks. And next week, you’ll hear directly from Takeru Kobayashi, the hot-dog-eating champion, and you’ll learn more than you ever thought you wanted to know about the sport of competitive eating:

Takeru KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

Maggie JAMES: They said they that took me to outer space and some aliens had given the man two stomachs. Um. Oh, he’s taking muscle relaxers.

DUBNER: That you were doping. Did you take muscle relaxers?


DUBNER: Do you have two stomachs?


JAMES: He thought about it.

DUBNER: Some limits are real, and others are just in our mind. Fifty hot dogs in 12 minutes? No problem! That’s next time on Freakonomics Radio.

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Podcast Transcripts"
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Date: Wednesday, 25 Jun 2014 14:07

radio-cartoon featureFrom a nice review of Freakonomics Radio on Stitcher (a great podcast platform, BTW, if you don’t know it):

I wish I could listen to a new Freakonomics podcast everyday! Truly insightful, great narrative, thought provoking, and interesting topics…

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to fulfill the wishes of the first sentence while upholding the attributes of the second sentence. Sure, we could put out a daily podcast but it would be total crap.

Any ideas?

Author: "Stephen J. Dubner" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog, Freakonomics Radio, S..."
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Date: Monday, 23 Jun 2014 17:35
(Photo: Kim Jaren Brooklyn)

(Photo: Kim Jaren Brooklyn)

A few months back, I helped start a little company, SpinforGood, that offers a new way to give to charity while having fun.  It’s not legal in the U.S. to play games like slots and blackjack for real money online, but it is legal to play those games online for charity.  So it’s our hope that by hooking up people who like to gamble online with charities, we can let people have fun while doing a whole lot of good.

We are running a special tournament today and tomorrow.  In this particular tournament, I personally donated $1,000 of my own money to the prize pool to give people an extra incentive to participate.  Which charities get my money (and yours) will be decided by the tournament winners.  So for a $10 donation, you can have fun gambling and potentially win thousands of dollars for the charity of your choice.

If you are interested, check it out.  I’ll be playing some under my own name, so you can see how I’m doing and try to beat me.  When it comes to blackjack, let’s hope I do better than the one and only time I ever played live. I actually hit (by accident, while gesturing with my hands telling a story that the dealer misunderstood) when I had 21!

Author: "Steven D. Levitt" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog, gambling, internet"
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Date: Thursday, 19 Jun 2014 16:56

We are starting to put together an anthology of posts from this blog, which we began in 2005, just before the publication of Freakonomics. It is a lot of fun going through the archives — more than 8,000 posts! — but also a bit overwhelming.

Are you willing to help? Whether you are a longtime reader or a new one, please tell us (in the comments section below) any blog posts that you think should be included (or that shouldn’t be). Maybe it was a post you loved … or hated … or something that changed the way you think … or gave you a good idea. Maybe it was simply something that was memorable for reasons you don’t understand.

Don’t feel that you need to troll through the archives as I’m doing, although you are certainly welcome to!

Many thanks.

Author: "Stephen J. Dubner" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog, bleg, blog"
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Date: Thursday, 19 Jun 2014 12:17

(Photo: Alexander Baxevanis)

(Photo: Alexander Baxevanis)

This week’s episode of Freakonomics Radio is called “There’s No Such Thing As A Free Appetizer.” (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.)

It was inspired by an e-mail from a listener named Larry Tingen, a college math instructor:

My fiancee and I are avid listeners and lovers of Freakonomics. We were at a Mexican restaurant this weekend and the first thing that happens is we are given chips and salsa — even before drink orders. Kelli asked me why I thought so many restaurants serve you free food (e.g. chips and salsa, bread, etc.) prior to taking your order? I couldn’t come up with a good reason. To me, it seems to go against the restaurant’s financial interest because most people will “fill up” on the free food, then order a smaller/cheaper meal. … Does the free food make customers more likely to order meals that have a better profit margin? What’s going on here?

Good question, Larry! We spend this podcast trying to answer it. Are we successful? Hard to say. We discuss a number of theories, but perhaps the most persuasive answer is — well, we’ll get to that in a little while.

Helping us sort out the question are:

Among the theories we entertain:

  • Free food at the start of the meal may actually encourage people to eat more, by priming the pump.
  • Free food (especially bread and chips) encourages diners to order more drinks, which have a high profit margin.
  • Free food gives servers and the kitchen time to deliver the meal without the customer getting cranky (or, as one person calls it, “hangry”: i.e., “hungry” + “angry”).
  • Free food might make diners less likely to order dessert, which may be in the restaurant’s best interest if they are trying to turn tables quickly. (This point, we should note, is disputed by those who feel that turning tables is overrated, and that dessert can be perfectly profitable.)
  • Free food might make diners feel warm and fuzzy toward the restaurant, and think that they should reciprocate by not being cheapskates.
  • The “free” food we’re talking about here isn’t really free at all, but rather is baked into the menu prices. In other words, there’s no such thing as a free appetizer.

Finally, Andrew Haley suggests that free appetizers in restaurants may in fact be little more than a historical artifact:

HALEY: Before there were restaurants, there were taverns. Taverns served a set dinner at a set time for a set price. And the accounts we have of these tavern meals suggest that bread … was part of the meal. And this made sense after all. When you went to one of these taverns, you were paying for the meal with a single charge. And it was in the interest of the tavern owner that you filled yourself up with bread so that you would eat less of the expensive fishes and meats.

One last note: there’s no such thing as a free podcast either. We are, after all, a public-radio project — which means  we are supported by your contributions. So please visit our donation page and help us keep doing what we do. Depending on the size of your donation, you can take home a signed copy of Think Like a Freak or Freakonomics; a Freakonomics Radio t-shirt or mug; AND — this is new — you’ll automatically be entered to win a 13″ Macbook Air, donated by our friends at Tekserve in New York.

Author: "Stephen J. Dubner" Tags: "Featured Radio Post, Freakonomics Blog, ..."
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Date: Thursday, 19 Jun 2014 12:16

[MUSIC: The Civil Tones, “City Stoopin’” (from City Stoopin’)]


Stephen J. DUBNER: Hey podcast listeners. As you may know, Freakonomics Radio is a public-radio project, which means it is supported by you, our listeners. In other words, we need you to send us some money! Just go to Freakonomics.com and click on the “donate” button. Now, you may be thinking, hang on a minute. Sure, I like this podcast fine but it doesn’t really accomplish anything. I could see sending them some money if it accomplished something but it doesn’t … does it? Alright, I want to tell you a story, about two people — Mandi Grzelak and Tim Barnhart.


Mandi GRZELAK: Hello!




DUBNER: Mandi’s a nursing student in Cincinnati. Tim is an engineer, also in Cincinnati. When the story begins, the didn’t know each other. Mandi, however, is a big fan of Freakonomics Radio…


GRZELAK: I listened to the podcast on a Thursday morning on my way to work and it was titled “What You Don’t Know About Online Dating,” or something along those lines.


DUBNER: This was around Valentine’s Day.


GRZELAK: And I had been single for a while and thought hey, maybe I’ll be able to date an NPR employee because that’s whose profiles they were looking at on the show.


DUBNER: The very day she hears this episode, Mandi Grzelak decides to sign up for online dating. The next day, she comes across Tim’s online-dating profile. They get in touch. The following Monday, they go on a date, to a burger joint.


[MUSIC: Drazy Hoops, “Happy Birthday To Me” (from Into the Red)]


GRZELAK: The first thing that I said when he pulled up and we gave each other a hug and I said I hope you like beer cheese because they have great stuff here and he’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’m already falling for you.”


DUBNER: That first date went well. Really well. Really, really, really well.

BARNHART: So you know we get the check and we walk out. And I get ready to walk her to her car and I got in my 4Runner, she got in her car, so I started to drive off. And there was just this overwhelming urge to not pull out of the parking lot. And instead, pull up beside her car. Bottom line, she hadn’t gotten in her car yet and she just started walking towards me and I walked towards her and we both knew what was getting ready to happen. It was smooch city. Couldn’t control it.


GRZELAK: It was a great first kiss. And that’s actually the same location where he proposed.


BARNHART: Yep. Exactly.


DUBNER: That’s right. Tim proposed to Mandi. And she said yes. They’re getting married later this summer. All because of Freakonomics Radio.


GRZELAK: We have you to thank.


BARNHART: Yeah, so thank you.


GRZELAK: I feel like we are forever thankful, because really, I mean, I would have not have gone online that night. I definitely wouldn’t have chosen the site that I did without hearing the podcast. So it changed my life and you know, ‘till death do us part. Right honey?




[MUSIC: Phil Symonds, “Carnival”]


DUBNER: Mandi and Tim: you are welcome. Our best wishes to the happy couple. As for the rest of you: if their story doesn’t make you want to go to Freakonomics.com and donate to our show, what will? What’s that? Oh, I hear you — yeah, that’s well and good for Mandi and Tim, you’re saying, but what about me? All right, we’ll give you something too. If you donate, we will send you a nice piece of Freakonomics Radio swag — a t-shirt or coffee mug or signed book — and, this is new, we’re also giving away one 13-inch Macbook Air, donated by Tekserve, the Apple specialty store here in New York. You are automatically entered when you visit Freakonomics.com and make a donation. You don’t have to contribute to enter, but we do hope you’ll support our show with a contribution.  If you’re already a monthly supporter of WNYC or Freakonomics Radio, you’re  automatically entered to win. So please go to Freakonomics.com now and click the donate button so that we can keep turning your dollars into true love.


[MUSIC: Grupo Tlacotalpan, “Ahualco” (from Son Jarocho De Tlacotalpan)]


VOICE: They’re fried and thin and crispy and super salty.

VOICE: Chewy and it’s salty and they coat the top of it with olive oil.

VOICE: So you’ve got kinda of a crunch and a soft and then a bite of butter. I mean, how do you not love that?

VOICE: They like the idea of drinks and chips and salsa as even a meal. And it’s endless, so they could definitely spend most of their stomach real estate there.

VOICE: Yeah, from a restaurant perspective, I don’t think it makes much sense to do that.

VOICE: I’m not sure, you know, it really doesn’t make much sense.


Larry TINGEN: Hey, Freakonomics. This is Larry Tingen, a math instructor at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, North Carolina. My fiancé Kelli and I went out to a Mexican restaurant and the first thing that happened was a server brought us chips and salsa – totally normal, happens every time, I didn’t think anything about it. Suddenly Kelli, my fiancé, asked me, “Why do they give us free chips and salsa?” This led to a long conversation, but no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t square the circle. To us it seems to go against the restaurant’s financial interest because people always fill up on the free food which leads them to order a smaller and cheaper meal. As we walked out of the restaurant we were thinking, “What’s going on here?” When we got back to the car, the last Freakonomics podcast was playing and I said to Kelli, “I know who we should ask.”


DUBNER: All right, Larry – we’ll bite. Why do some restaurants immediately give you free food when their objective is to sell you food? Or, as Larry properly put it: “What’s going on here?”


VOICE: I’m not sure it is good logic.

VOICE: I try not to fill up on it because I want the rest of the food that’s on the menu.

VOICE: I really don’t know what it is, but I’m not a restaurant person.




[MUSIC: Enrique Ugarte, “Entre Paris et Buenos Aires” (from Café Paris)]


DUBNER: On today’s show, we will try to answer a listener’s question about why it makes sense – or if it makes sense – when restaurants give you free chips and salsa when you sit down, or a basket of bread, or maybe some olives or pickles or other amuse-bouches. Say it with me:


VOICE: The Amuse-bouche.

VOICE: This little amuse-bouche.

VOICE: Amuse-bouche.


DUBNER: Amuse bouche. Something that makes the mouth happy. On the surface, this practice may appear to work against a restaurant’s self-interest. They’re trying to sell you food, not give it to you. But does it really work against their self-interest? And if not, why not? Let’s say this from the start: it’ll be hard to come up with definitive answers to these questions. We looked for good data and research findings on the topic and – well, we were left hungry. But we’ll still do our best. We’ll talk to a pair of professors, both of whom happen to teach at Cornell.


Michael LYNN: My name is Mike Lynn.


DUBNER: He’s a professor of consumer behavior and marketing. You may remember Michael Lynn from our episode on tipping a while back. And we talked to Brian Wansink:


Brian WANSINK: I’m professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and Cornell University.


DUBNER: We also hear from a number of people who work in restaurants.


VOICE: I think that food definitely makes a lot of difference in people’s moods, their energy levels, everything! And I think as a server you have to constantly be aware of that.


DUBNER: Including Nancy Silverton, who just won the Outstanding Chef award from the James Beard Foundation.

Nancy SILVERTON: I am the founder of La Brea Bakery, which is a international bread company now. And I am the co-owner of several restaurants.


DUBNER: We also talked to a lot of people like you, and me, people who eat in restaurants.


VOICE: They gave us chips and guacamole and salsa…

VOICE: They didn’t give us bread for free? No? I guess they didn’t give us anything for free.

VOICE: And if it’s good and it’s quality, I’m very willing to pay for it. It’s like, if I don’t want it, don’t give it to me.


[MUSIC: Wild-Wood, “Mocha Maya” (from Wildflower Lullaby)]


DUBNER: So let’s get into the various explanations, shall we? One popular theory among diners for why it doesn’t make sense for restaurants to give you free food at the beginning of the meal has to do with what happens at the end of the meal.


VOICE: It always seemed to stupid to me to bring a bread basket because they’re just going to fill up and then they’re not gonna have dessert.

VOICE: I personally think it’s kinda stupid because then people don’t order dessert and dessert is my favorite thing.


DUBNER: But what if …


LYNN: It may not be in the restaurant’s interest to sell you dessert.


DUBNER: That’s Michael Lynn.


LYNN: After all, dessert is a relatively low-priced item… You’re going to occupy a table. If they’ve got enough other customers who’d be willing to order entrees, they’d be better off turning that table rather than selling you a dessert. And so I suppose you could argue maybe that’s reason to argue that they should give away free chips. They’ll fill up. They’ll get their meal, and then they won’t order dessert, and that’s good from the restaurant’s perspective, because then they can fill that table with another person who’s going to order an expensive entrée.


DUBNER: Brian Wansink, we should say, does not buy this explanation.


WANSINK: That just isn’t most restaurants in the world. And so if you have a restaurant that isn’t full all the time and isn’t dealing with table turns, to implement the strategy that was intended for a place that’s I don’t know, serving food like it’s an aircraft carrier, it’s probably the wrong strategy.


DUBNER: And at relatively high-end restaurants like Nancy Silverton’s …


SILVERTON: A dessert can be as high as $12, right? So that’s an item, we’re making money on that.


[MUSIC: Jason Marsalis, “Hand Jivin’” (from The Year of the Drummer)]


DUBNER: Okay, so the dessert theory may or may not make sense. Here’s another explanation for free appetizers – this one we heard especially from restaurant servers:


VOICE: Yeah, the free bread, it will keep them entertained for a couple minutes while you take care of anything you need to care of.

VOICE: Then I don’t have to deal with an angry, hungry…hangry person.

VOICE: And the last thing you want is someone is to be sitting at the table, irritable, hungry, waiting to have their order taken, and all of that can be solved with just this little free carb on the table.


DUBNER: Here’s Michael Lynn again:


LYNN: And that also is a very plausible argument…We know from research again on waiting that perceptions of speed and service increase customer satisfaction… Although, why not have the customer order their own appetizer and pay for it? I mean, if the customer cares so much about that down time while they’re waiting for their order, then they’re willing, they’ll pay for it. Right? And if they don’t care for it enough to pay for it, it obviously isn’t going to bother them that much. Why give them something free? They can talk to one another.


DUBNER: Nancy Silverton says that in her restaurants – which are in California, and Singapore – they do serve free bread, but after customers have ordered. Why? Here’s one reason …


SILVERTON: If somebody comes in really hungry and there’s nothing on the table, they’ll order quicker, eat and leave, and then you can turn that table, rather than if you give them something to sort of nosh on while they’re reading the menu, they’re not going to order as quickly.


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


DUBNER: So it may be that free bread helps the servers get their job done, which is good for the restaurant, or it may be that free bread slows down the ordering process, which is bad for the restaurant. You see how this is working out, don’t you? It may not be so simple to understand why restaurants give you free food. So, okay, here’s another theory, how do you like this one?


VOICE: People are drinking margaritas, and such, that salty, like chips or whatever, might influence people to drink more, I think.

VOICE: If it’s very salty, it does encourage them to order more drinks.


DUBNER: You’ve probably heard this idea before, right? Many restaurants make a bigger margin from drinks than food, so anything that makes you thirstier might work in the restaurant’s favor. We asked Brian Wansink what he knew about this.


DUBNER: Do you know anything very specifically about the relationship between, let’s say the free chips let’s say at a Mexican restaurant and the number of margaritas that my table is likely to order if I have them or if I don’t?


WANSINK: That would be a cool statistic, but, jeez, it’s got to be positive. You know, the bar food that they have, often the little salty bar stuff is often not cheap stuff. And so you’d think that only reason they’re giving it away is they must be making up for it in $5 beers.


DUBNER: Michael Lynn, however, is skeptical:


LYNN: Your theory really needs to say, look, somehow getting this free thing of chips is likely to cause me to choose a beverage. Because I’m going to have some kind of beverage, but to choose a beverage that the restaurant profits from more than a beverage like water that they don’t make much off of. Is there a good reason to believe that that happens?


[MUSIC: Greg Ruby Quartet, “Easy for You to Say” (from Look Both Ways)]


DUBNER: Okay, so whether or not the chips or bread let the restaurant upsell you on drinks – what about upselling you on food? That is, instead of thinking of the free bread as a substitute for the food you may buy, what if it’s a compliment?


LYNN: By the way the technician in the other room here has another theory, and his theory is that: look, eating is addictive, once I get started it’s hard to stop.


DUBNER: Yeah, you prime the pump.


LYNN: And so if they’re going to…If they do give you chips before you order it’s priming the pump and it’s getting you started so that you’ll then subsequently order more.


DUBNER: In this scenario, it really helps that the food the restaurant is giving you is free. Why?


LYNN: Free has a special attraction and appeal to us… Dan Ariely and some of his colleagues did a study where they offered students on campus a choice, they could purchase a fancy Lindt Chocolate for 15 cents, or alternatively a Hershey’s Kiss for one cent. Now when given that option roughly 70 percent of the students chose to buy the fancier chocolate.


DUBNER: But then Ariely and his colleagues subtracted one penny from the price of each chocolate. So the price difference was the same, but now the Hershey’s kiss was free.


LYNN: Preferences switched, so that about 70 percent or two-thirds of the students in this condition chose the free Hershey Kiss. That’s a nice study in demonstrating that there’s just some special appeal to getting stuff free. So part of what may be going on is simply that by giving away free items you’re increasing the appeal of what you have to offer to the public.


WANSINK: It absolutely is worth pursuing.


DUBNER: That’s Brian Wansink again.


WANSINK: So I’ll give you an example, we wrote this really cool paper awhile back called “Fine as North Dakota Wine,” and we took people who came into this restaurant. And we gave them a complimentary glass of wine. It was actually just Two-Buck Chuck, Charles Shaw wine, that we’d taken the label off and put labels on saying it was either form California, a place known for wine, or labels that said it was from North Dakota, a place not known for wine. And half the tables we said, hey thanks for showing up tonight, we’ve got a complimentary glass of this new cabernet from California, poured it and it would be the same thing from other tables. Well people, again it’s the exact same wine but if people believe they’re drinking California wine, they stayed longer, they rated the wines better, they rated the restaurant better. They rated the food as better, simply because of this halo of this initial experience. Conversely, though, people who thought they were drinking North Dakota wine, they didn’t like the wine as much, they didn’t like the food as much, they got out of there faster. And when we asked people if they wanted to make reservation to come back, one guy even said, “Oh no, I’m really busy for the rest of my life.”


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


DUBNER: Okay, so maybe North Dakota wine – even if it’s not actually North Dakota wine – doesn’t win you many fans. But free stuff, generally, does.


WANSINK: You know, whether it be somebody gives you a silly mug, or somebody gives you a terrible flower, you like somebody that gives you a gift.


DUBNER: So maybe we “like” the restaurant a bit more when they give us free food – and maybe we want to reciprocate somehow – perhaps by ordering as much food as we would have ordered if they hadn’t given us that bread basket? Wansink’s research seems to show that the free food that restaurants give away doesn’t seem to change how much food people order. Why not?


WANSINK: Yeah, I think what’s going on is we have different scripts in our mind when we go to a restaurant of what we tend to order, if we’re a little bit hungry, or if it’s a celebration meal. That script may be I order a salad or an appetizer, and I order an entrée with some red meat, or I’m going to have two glasses of wine and maybe dessert afterwards. And you say that’s why I do. And if all of a sudden you end up filling up on, I don’t know, breaded mushrooms, or on bread, or chips, nope, nope, I’m not taking it into account, because this is what I ordered when I’m in situations like this. And you default back to this consumption norm for that type of restaurant or that type of celebration experience.


DUBNER: So maybe there’s a “consumption norm,” or an ordering script, that people don’t deviate from whether they get some free bread of not. Which might indicate the free food isn’t necessarily working in the restaurant’s favor, which might lead you to wonder why they give it out. Here’s Brian Wansink again…


WANSINK: This is very simple, and in some ways it’s a prisoner’s dilemma in that if every place offers free chips and all of a sudden you’re the place that doesn’t, well boy you’re looking pretty bad…That’s the reason there’s fry wars and drink-size wars in fast food places.


DUBNER: Michael Lynn agrees.


LYNN: If there’s going to be an arms race, then there’s some economic benefit to giving it as long as no one else is. So let’s assume everyone is charging for chips. If I start giving them away free am I going to get some competitive advantage? Absolutely, I think … And that’s then going to put pressure on other restaurants to start doing it because my competitive advantage is their competitive disadvantage.


[MUSIC: Collective Acoustics, “Toroid” (from Edges)]


DUBNER: Now, if you’re giving away food, for free, you do have to have some faith that customers won’t simply gobble up the free stuff and leave…


VOICE: It would be kinda awkward to go into a restaurant, eat the chips and salsa, and then say, “Thanks!”

VOICE: My friends would go to a restaurant just to get the free chips and salsa and then leave.

VOICE: Really?!

VOICE: Yeah! I wouldn’t do it though, I promise.


DUBNER: But of course some people just can’t help themselves …


VOICE: Oh yeah, definitely. As a college student I definitely over-indulged in bread baskets at restaurants.

VOICE: There was those people who would come in all the time that we’d recognize and they’d sample everything and then leave.

VOICE: Red Lobster’s cheese biscuits are awesome.

VOICE: Cheesy biscuits.

VOICE: The cheesy garlic biscuits, OH MY GOD.

VOICE: Just put that [BEEP] in your purse.

VOICE: Just keep getting cheesy biscuits and stuff them suckers right down in there.


DUBNER: Okay, so we’ve talked through some of the reasons why many restaurants give away free food. But, coming up on Freakonomics Radio: there are some deeper questions we haven’t gotten to yet:


LYNN: Are you really getting it free, or is the price of those chips, that bread, being built into the menu cost? And then the question is, why would you build it into the menu price rather than charging separately for it?


DUBNER: And maybe this whole free-appetizer thing is the result of nothing more than an accident of history.


Andrew HALEY: And so free bread becomes a part of that tradition…It was food that you could snack on between courses. But also meant that you were eating less of the expensive fishes and meat.




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


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


DUBNER: Today on Freakonomics Radio, we’re wondering why restaurants give you free food the minute you sit down, before you’ve spent a penny – that bread basket, or the chips and salsa, or that little shot glass of kale-and-melon smoothie.


VOICE: Gosh, Italian restaurants, Mexican restaurants, some of our favorites. In fact, I think we fuss when they charge for such things.

VOICE: I don’t like the charging. That should come with it, you know? That should come with the meal. Like, yeah.

VOICE: Being in the restaurant industry, I did have a couple a few weeks ago actually tell me because we did not do bread service where I worked, they wouldn’t be back.

VOICE: We try to offer it because that’s what people expect.

VOICE: And from personal experience, when that doesn’t happen, people get really mad.

VOICE: You know, in a lot of restaurants in Europe, they do have a table charge, which covers things like bread. We don’t do that here. And actually when we first opened… we didn’t serve bread. And then there was such an outrage or angry guests, so I kinda caved and said I guess we have to serve bread.

DUBNER: Alright… so we’ve come to expect that free bread when we sit down. But why?

Where does this expectation come from? We need to find someone who knows a little food history.  How about … you? Yes, you, sir. Please tell everyone your name.


HALEY: I am Andrew Haley.


DUBNER: And what do you do for a living?


HALEY: I am an associate professor of American cultural history at the University of Southern Mississippi.


DUBNER: Do you have some particular area of research that’s germane to our conversation today?


HALEY: I study the history of food and restaurants.


DUBNER: Perfect! Alright then, Professor Haley, tell us what you know about the history of restaurants.


HALEY: People have been dining out for as long as they’ve been traveling. And so there have been taverns and hostels that provided food. But the modern restaurant has two early manifestations. It appeared in China first. But that remained localized to China. More famously it emerged in France in the late 18th century.

DUBNER: Now, these early restaurants weren’t serving free bread, were they?


HALEY: These early restaurants were serving free breads. But I think the free bread probably predates the restaurant itself. Before there were restaurants there were taverns. Taverns served a set dinner at a set time for a set price. And the accounts we have of these tavern meals suggest that bread, probably prepared by a local baker rather than the tavern owner, was part of the meal. And this made sense after all. When you went to one of these taverns you were paying for the meal with a single charge. And it was in the interest of the tavern owner that you filled yourself up with bread so that you would eat less of the expensive fishes and meats.


DUBNER: Wow. That does make sense – economic sense, in particular. For a tavern at least. But what about these early restaurants?


HALEY: Early restaurants pick up that tradition and they serve these table d’hote meals, these fixed price meals. And they have the same incentive as the taverns before them since the price of the meal is all-inclusive, they want you to fill up on bread. And so free bread becomes a part of that tradition. And it’s not just bread. They also sometimes provide crackers or pickles, and olives.


[MUSIC: 3 Leg Torso, “B and G’s” (from Astor In Paris)]


DUBNER: Andrew Haley, we should say here, is the author of a fascinating book called Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class. In it, he makes the point that while fixed-price menus are still around, it is the a la carte menu, or a modified a la carte, that most of us are familiar with. He attributes this to the explosion of the middle class.


HALEY: So over the course of the 19th century, restaurants initially served these table d’hote menus to the very wealthy who are able to pretty much pay the set price and not worry too much about it. But by the mid-and-late 19th century, restaurants are trying to attract middle class diners. And middle class diners are more cost conscious… They want to be able to kind of pick and choose from the menu so they can dine out more affordably. You would imagine that these a la carte restaurants began to charge for bread, but it seems like the tradition of eating bread was extremely well-established. And so when we look at these a la carte menus, we don’t see bread listed. It’s just assumed that the bread will be on the table.


DUBNER: Okay, so the bread stays in the picture, for starters at least. But as Haley argues, more middle-class diners meant more restaurants – and what did that mean?


HALEY: Restaurants are facing a lot of competition in the early 20th century. There’s just more and more of them, and they are eager to attract this somewhat frugal middle class, and so they’re looking for ways to keep their prices down… And one of the things that they do is they introduce, some New York restaurants, especially New York hotel restaurants, in 1913, introduce a couvert, a cover charge of 10 cents, which is to cover bread and water, and any of the other free things at the table. And this is met with resistance.


DUBNER: When Haley says this was “met with resistance,” he doesn’t mean just one or two grumpy customers.


HALEY: Coverage in the New York Times in 1913 of this is somewhat incredulous that restaurants would actually try to charge for bread…  Patrons are incredibly upset about the couvert charge… These patrons claim that it is an un-American, European import. And they complain about the charge, and in some cases bring their own bread to the restaurants to resist the charge. And it appears that restaurants cave pretty quickly and stop charging for bread… And so I think that it’s indicative of the fact that the tradition of free bread had become very well-established in American restaurants.


[MUSIC: Soulglue, “Steve McQueen” (from Arboretum)]


DUBNER: But you know what? Fast forward to today, and that tradition seems to be on the wane – for a couple of reasons. One, now as before, is cost:


VOICE: We are one of the growing number of restaurants that do not give away free bread or snacks or food.

VOICE: It comes down to cutting costs.

VOICE: I think the reason they don’t do it anymore is the same reason a lot of people cutting back, even at the fast food restaurants. You see food is getting smaller. It’s to cut back costs… so they have to take the freebies. They have to take the freebies.


DUBNER: A restaurant, as you have undoubtedly heard, is a notoriously risky business. Roughly 60 percent of them fail within their first three years. Here again is chef and restaurateur Nancy Silverton:


SILVERTON: A restaurant that struggles needs to do everything to tighten their costs, you know, they have to cut down on labor, they might have to cut down on the types of tableware they use or the types of napkins they use, and you start to cutting those costs just to survive. And I would say that probably one of the first things to go is bread service… It’s sort of an added-value item, right? I mean, it’s not something that someone is ordering…And so here is something that’s on the table that people don’t really appreciate–it is a food cost.


DUBNER: But Silverton says there’s another reason why she’s seeing less free bread in restaurants:


SILVERTON: I see on menus, it’s not on ours, but I see on menus, at the bottom of the menu, “bread upon request,” which is sort of interesting because a lot of people that are either, say, not eating carbs, a lot of people are trying to stay away from gluten say. So there are a lot of people who are not bread eaters these days. I happen to be not one of them.
[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “Growin’ In It” (from Destination… Get Down!)]


DUBNER: You remember Brian Wansink?


WANSINK: I’m professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and Cornell University.


DUBNER: But that’s not all he does.


WANSINK: So I had a really great experience a few years ago. I was in charge of the dietary guidelines for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.




WANSINK: Prior to that I’d written a bestseller called “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.” And I actually have a book coming out called “Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Places.” And what we try to do is we try to find in my lab at Cornell, we try to find easy ways that people can make changes through their immediate environment to help them mindlessly eat less without thinking about it.


DUBNER: Now I would assume, which is probably a bad idea, that when it comes to mindless eating, which is your territory, that a big basket of bread or a big basket of chips before the meal is about as mindless as it gets, no? It’s free, it’s put there without your asking, and you’re doing all this other stuff like talking to you friends or family, and starting to order, and having a drink. I’m guessing those are some of the most thoughtless calories that are ever consumed. Am I right or wrong?


WANSINK: You know, it’s terrible. I think the analog to this is you know, how do you eat less at Thanksgiving? You’d eat 9 percent less on Thanksgiving if you don’t eat the junk that is put out before the meal begins. And it’s the same thing with these restaurants. We don’t quite find it’s 9 percent, but we find it’s somewhere between in the range of 5 and 10 percent of the calories you eat are the calories you consume before you even look at the silly menu.


[MUSIC: Roberto Rodriguez, “Mambo Kitsch” (from Timba Talmud)]


DUBNER: So there’s one way that restaurants could stop serving free bread or chips if it’s costing them too much. They could simply say: “hey, people, we’re helping keep you from getting fat.” But that’s probably not the message you want to send if you are a restaurant. So here’s another idea, from Michael Lynn:


LYNN: Why aren’t chips simply an item on the menu just like everything else?


DUBNER: As you said, there’s a growing literature on free and what it means, and what it accomplishes. And some of the effects are really strong and interesting there. I think what’s different about this scenario is let’s say I want to buy a car and the car dealer offers me a free something. You know, if it’s a really high-end car maybe they offer me free tickets to a ball game, or whatever it is. That’s nice, but it theoretically doesn’t diminish my demand for the product itself. In fact it might increase it. I get a new car, it makes it easier to drive to the game. In this case, however, the free thing would seem to be working against the paid thing itself. So you’re literally giving me some of the stuff that I’m prepared to give you money for but you’re giving me a portion of that stuff free.


LYNN: Another way of looking at this is are you really getting it free or is the price of those chips, that bread, being built into the menu cost. And then the question is why would you build it into the menu price rather than charging separately for it. Okay? And there are a couple answers here, too. One is that we know from research that people don’t like being nickeled and dimed. And that if you add too many surcharges on to a bundle that people are purchasing, they become turned off and are less likely to purchase the bundle. So one reason that people may offer the free chips is to avoid this appearance of nickel and diming the customer.


DUBNER: What restaurants may be trying to avoid, Michael Lynn says, is too much of what is called “price partitioning.”


LYNN: What happens when we have separate prices and how do people evaluate separate prices relative to one common price?


DUBNER: Lynn says consumers generally aren’t crazy about too many separate prices for one product – like an airline ticket, then a fee to check your bags, and a fee to eat, or watch a movie… then the pillow fee, the pillow-insurance fee… Okay, I made that last one up – there’s no such thing as pillow insurance – yet. But you get the idea. So if a restaurant can bake the price of the appetizer into the menu prices, it might make sense to give it away. Nancy Silverton again:


SILVERTON: You figure that out ahead of time, what it costs to operate your restaurant, so that means: what does linen cost? What does health insurance cost? What does bread cost? And you tag that percentage onto what you have to upcharge your food so that you make the amount of money you need to be a successful restaurant, you know. And so it’s true, that bread is figured into the cost.


[MUSIC: Grupo Tlacotalpan, “Ahualco” (from Son Jarocho De Tlacotalpan)]

DUBNER: In other words, all the questions we’ve been asking today about why restaurants give you “free” food were probably the wrong questions. Because the food isn’t free. Or, as the late, great Milton Friedman might have put it: “There ain’t no such thing as a free appetizer.”

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Podcast Transcripts"
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Date: Thursday, 12 Jun 2014 12:56

(Photo: Steven Depolo)

(Photo: Steven Depolo)

With the 2014 World Cup getting underway in Brazil, we’ve just released an episode called “Why America Doesn’t Love Soccer (Yet).” (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 tries to answer a few questions:

1. Why doesn’t America love soccer the way the rest of the world does? 2. Would that change if the U.S. ever managed to win a World Cup? 3. Is No. 2 possible without No. 1?

It’s no secret that soccer continues to lag behind other U.S. sports in viewership and enthusiasm. For instance, 111.5 million Americans sat down to watch Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014. Meanwhile, only 24.3 million watched the 2010 World Cup Final, which was actually a record.

To put this in global perspective, total Super Bowl viewership is roughly 90 percent American while viewership of the biggest soccer event is roughly 3 percent American. And relatively few people in the States rank soccer as their favorite sport.

To address these disparities, Stephen Dubner turns to a real-life football superstar of the American variety: Indianapolis Colts Quarterback Andrew Luck. Luck was selected first in the 2012 NFL Draft and has become one of the best quarterbacks in America’s favorite sport. He also happens to be a huge soccer fan. What does Luck think it would take for U.S. soccer to take off in popularity?

LUCK: I think…a Pied Piper would be a U.S. national team, you know, winning the World Cup. As we know, we love winners in this country. … It’s sort of ingrained in our society. So I don’t know if there’s one player that would be a Pied Piper that would bring everything with him, be a Tiger Woods. I do think our national team winning the World Cup would be unbelievable.

Dubner also interviews Sunil Gulati, an economist at Columbia who also is the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and on the FIFA Executive Committee:

GULATI: [T]here aren’t many countries that have qualified for the last seven World Cups like we’ve just done. There are some. But unlike some of the other sports in which the U.S. is dominant in, this sport is played in every country in the world, and it’s the number one sport in probably 95 percent of those countries….. So this is a real world champion…In this case there are 208 countries that play. We’re not a newcomer, we’ve been doing this a long time, but other countries have taken it far more seriously at a much earlier stage. And it’s not just down to the fact that we’ve got 320 million people and are a relatively affluent country because then China would be good in some of those areas and some of the European countries which haven’t done as well would also be at the top. So we’ve made a lot of improvements, and if we could replicate the progress that we’ve made both on and off the field over the last quarter century then I think we will be where we want to be in the next quarter century, which is one of the elite powers in the world.

The U.S., of course, is an elite power when it comes women’s soccer. Our national team has won the World Cup twice and is currently ranked No. 1 in the world. In the podcast, Gulati explains why the U.S. women have performed so much better than the U.S. men.

Jonathan Wilson, a Tufts professor who is the author of Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball (Bloomsbury Reader), explains why culture around soccer is so different in the U.S. But he, like Luck and Gulati, believes that immigration and other factors are already changing this.

You’ll also hear from Solomon Dubner, a 13-year-old aspiring soccer journalist who has written for World Soccer Talk and maintains a blog called  Solomon on Footy. Coincidentally, he is also the son of Stephen Dubner, and his papa is proud.

(Special thanks to Sal Tuzzeo at Nielsen and Kevin Alavy at Futures Sport + Entertainment for helping us sort through viewership data.)

Author: "Greg Rosalsky" Tags: "Featured Radio Post, Freakonomics Blog, ..."
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Date: Wednesday, 11 Jun 2014 22:17

[MUSIC: Jonathan Geer, “Happy Elevator”]

Stephen J. DUBNER: Okay, time for a guessing game. I’m thinking of something that only happens every four years and that everyone gets really excited about …

MEDIA CLIP: Well, this year’s a leap year! Anyone with a special leap day birthday today can get in on some good deals. How does a dozen free cupcakes sound?! That sounds fantastic!

DUBNER: No, not leap year.

MEDIA CLIP: The race for 2016. 2016. 2016. 2016 fast approaching. There are still almost 1000 days before the first votes in the 2016 contest.

DUBNER: Yeah,  presidential elections are pretty exciting – but that’s not what I’m after. So what am I after? Here’s what I’m after …

MEDIA CLIP: …Goal. Goal. Gooooaaaallll! Are you kidding me? It’s ecstasy. Astonishing! This is not just a dream. It’s a wet dream of orgasmic proportions!

DUBNER: The last World Cup, held in South Africa in 2010, drew a total TV viewership of some 3.2 billion over its four-week run. This year’s tournament, getting underway this week in Brazil, is expected to do even better. The world is pretty much crazy about soccer.

Solomon DUBNER: What’s soccer?

Stephen DUBNER: You don’t let me say “soccer,” do you?

Solomon DUBNER: No, I do not.

Stephen DUBNER: That’s my son.

Solomon DUBNER: Solomon Dubner.

Stephen DUBNER: Age?

Solomon DUBNER: Thirteen.

Stephen DUBNER: Profession?

Solomon DUBNER: Sports writer.

Stephen DUBNER: Aha, can you tell me where you’ve published your work, young man?

Solomon DUBNER: I had an article published on World Soccer Talk and I occasionally write on my own blog.

Stephen J. DUBNER: What is your blog called for interested listeners?

Solomon DUBNER: “Solomon on Footy.”

Solomon DUBNER:  What is footy?

Solomon DUBNER: Football, in America known as soccer, the game played and loved worldwide.

DUBNER: “Loved worldwide,” yes – for the most part. But here, in the U.S.? Eh … Not so much:

Roland MARTIN: Let’s just be honest, the reality is when the World Cup is over, soccer is not going to be a dominant sport in the United States.

Daniel TOSH: Nothing can help me care about soccer.

Jason SUDEIKIS: What the hell, that’s not a tackle! That’s just sliding around!

OTHER VOICE: Soccer tackle, sir.

Bill O’REILLY: If nobody wants to see it, why is it the most popular sport in the world?!

Glenn BECK: No, nobody here wants to see it!

O’REILLY: Nobody, here? We’re a tiny speck. There’s a big world out there, you chauvinist! What is wrong with you?!

BECK: (laughs). Chauvinist? I’m an American!

DUBNER: Many Americans, of course, do love soccer. Here’s a hardcore fan who happens to be one of the best players in a sport known to the rest of the world as “American football.”

ANDREW LUCK: Hey, Andrew Luck. Quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.

DUBNER: He spent a lot of his childhood in Europe.

LUCK: I think if we would have stayed in Europe, I probably would have ended up playing soccer. I don’t know if I would have been good enough to be a professional (laughs).

[MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “$4/Gal” (from Outcries From A Sea Of Red)]

DUBNER: Andrew Luck, as you’ll hear later, is a soccer fanatic. As is Solomon Dubner. Nor are they alone in this country. A variety of TV networks now broadcast European club matches all year long. MLS, or Major League Soccer — the U.S. and Canadian professional league – continues to grow. Next year it will add a twentieth team,NYC-FC, or New York City Football Club, which is co-owned by the New York Yankees and Manchester City,which has won England’s Premier League two of the last three seasons.David Beckham, the sport’s biggest star of the past few generations, is trying to start another MLS team, in Miami.And indeed, if you take a look at a magazine rack this week, it’s hard to find a magazine without the World Cup on its cover. Every four years, we hear the same mantra: this time, soccer will really take root in the U.S., the way it’s taken root elsewhere in the world. But let’s be honest. It probably won’t. Many of the people who are most fanatical about the sport in the U.S. have some kind of ties to Europe or South America or Africa. All those magazine covers? They’re really an excuse to put a great-looking international superstar on the cover – the pouty metrosexual Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal; Leo Messi, the magical undersized Argentine who plays for Barcelona; and Messi’s 22-year-old Barca teammate Neymar, coltish and exuberant, plays for Brazil. So yes, we may profess our love for soccer over the next month, but how deep is our love? One poll, conducted by Harris Interactive, found that just 2 percent of Americans who follow at least one sport consider men’s soccer to be their favorite. Fewer than 1 percent name women’s soccer as their favorite. American football, meanwhile, between its pro and college versions, gets 46 percent of the vote; baseball, 14 percent. So, on today’s program, we will ask a few questions. No. 1: why doesn’t America love soccer the way the rest of the world does? No. 2: would that change if the U.S. ever managed to win a World Cup? And, No. 3: is No. 2 possible without No. 1? Among the favorites in this year’s World Cup: home team Brazil; its next-door neighbor Argentina; and defending champion Spain. Also expected to do well are mighty Germany and, believe it or not, tiny Belgium. And who is Indianapolis Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck picking to win the World Cup?

LUCK: My best guess, well, shoot. I’d love to say the Americans.

DUBNER: Okay, your best guess after the Americans. Let’s assume the Americans…

LUCK: After the Americans… I’m a true fan, Stephen (laughs).


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

[MUSIC: Louis Thorne, “Bossa Trio”]

DUBNER: Today on Freakonomics Radio, we are talking World Cup, and why the U.S., unlike the rest of the planet, typically doesn’t get very excited about watching a soccer game.

Solomon DUBNER: Don’t you mean football match?

DUBNER: Yeah, sorry, Solomon. “Football match.” Played on a pitch, not a field; wearing a kit, not a uniform, and boots, not shoes. Just how popular is this sport that Americans don’t care about all that much? Consider this: the Super Bowl, America’s biggest sports spectacle, is seen by about 125 million people worldwide – but roughly 90 percent of them are in the U.S. And how about World Cup? In the 2010 final, when Spain beat the Netherlands, nearly a billion people tuned in worldwide. And how many of those viewers were in the U.S.? Less than three percent. The journalist Jason Gay, writing in the Wall Street Journal, says the World Cup “makes the Super Bowl seem like open-mike night at a coffee shop.” Okay, so let’s look for some answers. Why don’t Americans care more about soccer? We’ll begin with Sunil Gulati.

GULATI: I teach economics at Columbia University. I’m also president of the United States Soccer Federation and on the FIFA executive committee.

DUBNER: FIFA is the sport’s international governing body. The U.S. Soccer Federation oversees our national teams and Major League Soccer, which Gulati helped get off the ground.

GULATI: We started essentially in 1992, 1993 putting together a business plan. And it was a small group of people that were working at the World Cup. Part of our manifesto for a successful World Cup was to start a professional league.

DUBNER: That’s right – the U.S. hosted a World Cup in 1994,won by Brazil.Soccer fever did not sweep the nation:

WILSON: As soon as you left the stadium, and I remember  this very clearly once… going downtown, and it was as if there was no World Cup going on.

DUBNER: That’s Jonathan Wilson. He’s a British born author, an English professor at Tufts. He covered the ’94 Cup for The New Yorker.

WILSON: I used to feel during the World Cup in ’94 that if the I.N.S. had raided one of the grounds they could have arrested 90 percent of the people who were inside.

DUBNER: But Wilson admits the sport is growing here.

WILSON: I feel that it’s actually sort of become indigenous.

DUBNER: A lot of this has to do with the success of the MLS. Sunil Gulati again:

GULATI: So the attendance is approximately 18,000, which puts it sixth, or seventh, eighth in the world in terms of attendance, which is obviously a phenomenal accomplishment after 18 years. The economic trends are generally positive. The number of teams has increased, overall attendance has increased… The one area where we’ve still got some challenges is in the media side from television and television ratings.

[MUSIC: The Civil Tones, “Gin Rummy” (from Rotisserie Twist)]

DUBNER: Okay, so the growth is real. But again, soccer here isn’t what soccer is elsewhere. Why not? Here’s Jonathan Wilson:

WILSON: Well, I think it’s a number of things. First of all it’s the competition of other sports. I mean, it’d be hard to dislodge football or American football from the number one position. And soccer has to compete against football, basketball, hockey and baseball.

DUBNER: So, true, that’s a lot of competition from other sports. Plus which: to many sports fans in America, there’s something just … un-American about soccer. Here’s what you’ll hear on ESPN:

ESPN ANNOUNCER 1: Let’s move to a real man’s game, Soccer. Tony I could not be more fired up for this. How about you?

ESPN ANNOUNCER 2: I’m just gonna take issue with that. “A real man’s game.” Soccer.

ESPN ANNOUNCER 1: A man’s game!

ESPN ANNOUNCER 2: I mean people take dives like divas all the time. When somebody comes within three feet of them they fall down, hold their ankles for years and years and years.

ESPN ANNOUNCER 1: Quit acting! That’s some real men’s men who are actors?

ESPN ANNOUNCER 2: It’s a Julia Roberts kind of situation as far as I’m concerned.

WILSON: You know, it’s too, it’s too, it’s viewed as too nice here.

DUBNER: Jonathan Wilson again:

WILSON: I remember when I first came and I first started coaching here, I had a kid on a team who I was coaching and he was six, and he was fantastic. And he scored something like five goals in a game, and the parents started screaming at me take him out, take him out. And I thought why would I take him out? He just scored five goals, we’re crushing the other team, these other kids, and they were in a panic. And I never saw this happen in Little League. You know, I never saw anybody say you know that kid he just struck out two players in a row…take him out! It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen in basketball…

DUBNER: Why in soccer then?

WILSON: Because soccer became a sort of site of middle-class angst in America. And you know the whole soccer-mom phenomenon and a feeling that somehow it’s tied to you know, your suburban team’s victory, and the U9 league is tied to your kids getting into Harvard in 10 years’ time.

[MUSIC: Vagabond Opera, “Ganef” (from The Zeitgeist Beckons)]

DUBNER: In most places, soccer has been a bootstrap sport. In England, where the modern game developed, the posh kids played rugby while the rough kids played soccer. Even today, in the most soccer-mad countries like Brazil and Argentina, soccer is still a hard sport, played with elbows out. You don’t see a lot of soccer moms toting Ziplocs full of cut-up oranges. Sunil Gulati:

GULATI: I think there’s some truth in that, that soccer in the U.S. has been traditionally a suburban sport. But that’s changing. So if you look at some of the other American sports and where those players have come from, in lots of cases inner cities, we’d love to have more players from inner cities and have more diversity. And I think that’s starting to happen. So you’re absolutely right, in Argentina or traditionally in England it may be kids who were learning how to play in the streets rather than perfectly manicured fields in $200 soccer shoes.

DUBNER: This also means a different career trajectory for a young soccer player in the United States.

WILSON: The American system of how you kind of come up in soccer is very different to the rest of the world. Most of the world’s great soccer players did not and do not go to college. And they are plucked very early.

LUCK: I think there’s a fundamental difference in how soccer is taught in the rest of the world, or sort of the structure surrounding it.

DUBNER: That’s Andrew Luck again, the American football quarterback – who, before he went pro, graduated from Stanford, in architectural design.

LUCK: It seems like kids go professional at age 13, 14 and then they’re professional soccer players with sort of a supplement of education maybe up to those years, and once they’re age 16, 17, they’re full-fledged professionals. Which doesn’t mesh, I think, with our system. The college system. How every other sport in this country is run, really. So I think there’s a difference there, in terms of just practice hours for kids who are 15 years old. Right or wrong. I’m not saying either one is right or wrong. So I do think that creates a disparity.

[MUSIC: Russell L. Howard III, “Keep The Groove”]

DUBNER: So when you look at the U.S. National team – the ones who’ll be competing this month in Brazil, trying to survive a Group of Death including Germany, Portugal, and pesky Ghana – what do you see?

WILSON: The U.S. has never produced a truly world-class player. They’re a good team, they play well as team. They have world-class goal… Although maybe I take that back, they have world class goalkeepers.

DUBNER: And that’s because they can use their hands presumably, yes?

WILSON: Probably yeah. And they’re big. But they’re not, you know, they’re not the great artists of soccer…. So the U.S. is not huge fun to watch as a team. They’re workmen-like; they’re athletic.

DUBNER: I love how only in soccer is the word “athletic” an insult, I’ve noticed. In every other sport to be athletic…It means something different in every sport. But in soccer it means that, well…

WILSON: It means your skill levels aren’t…

DUBNER: Your muscles are fairly coordinated.

WILSON: You have to run around like a nutcase because you don’t have the skill to just stand in one place and do something extraordinary.

DUBNER: Something extraordinary like Leo Messi, who dribbles at full speed as if the ball is attached to his boot. Or Luis Suarez of Uruguay, who scores mind-bending goals,  occasionally bites his opponents. Or the 36-year-old Frenchman Thierry Henry, who after a legendary career in Europe, now plays for the MLS’s New York Red Bulls, who play in New Jersey. This is becoming common. International stars, their speed and skills fading, come to the U.S. to play in our league for a few sunset years. Beckham did it. NYC-FC has just signed the Spanish striker David Villa. But the MLS traditionally hasn’t attracted the best players at their peak – even the ones born in America.

WILSON: The MLS, the league that we have is a sort of second-rate league. So if the players want to be great players, they’ve got to go play in Europe, in Germany, France, Spain, Italy or England.

DUBNER: So, what about the correlation between a country’s professional league and the  strength of their national team? Sunil Gulati says there are two successful models.

GULATI: One is to have strong professional league. And the other is to essentially have an export-driven model where you develop players and your clubs survive either by having those players play until they’re 17, 18, 19, 20, or maybe a little bit later, and then they’re transferred overseas playing in some of the best leagues in the world.

DUBNER: This is the Brazil model, for instance.

GULATI: The Brazil, the Argentina, the Chile.

DUBNER: South America.

GULATI: Denmark. All of those countries are in that situation. My view is that in a country like the United States with the population base that we have, with the economic strength that we have, the long-term model has to be the first one for us. Americans want to have the best players in the world. And we’ve got a big population So I don’t think eventually we’re going to be an export-driven model. And that’s changed over time. So in the short term when we started Major League Soccer, it might have been best to have all of our best players playing abroad, because the league wasn’t as strong as other leagues around the world. Over time that’s changed, and now, you know, a number of our players are playing at home in the league. Others are playing abroad. That’s fine, that will continue to happen. But as the league gets stronger and players want to play in the best environment, then I think we will follow model A where we have a top flight league and a top flight national team to match.

[MUSIC: Carson Henley, “Fire” (from 100 Hours)]

DUBNER: Okay, so we’ve learned a few things about why U.S. soccer isn’t like soccer elsewhere in the world. But maybe we’re better than we think? This spring, the U.S. national men’s team has been ranked No. 13 and 14in the FIFA standings — pretty good for a country that’s not so enthusiastic about the sport. And, coming up on Freakonomics Radio, we are world champions in the women’s game. Why the disparity?

GULATI: So whether it’s women in the workforce, or voting rights, all sorts of things, that movement, that liberation, those positive steps happen in the U.S. much earlier than they did in many countries around the world.

DUBNER: And: what’ll it take for U.S. men’s soccer to become truly world class?

LUCK: I do think people tend to follow money, when it comes down to it.


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

[MUSIC: Sangre Mixto, “Sistema Mayoridad” (from Cuchata)]

DUBNER: The World Cup is upon us. Soccer, as you probably know, is the most popular sport on the planet – but not in the U.S. Perhaps not coincidentally, we’ve never won a World Cup. Our best finish: third place – in 1930, when only 13 teams played. In our last two Cups, the U.S. was eliminated by Ghana, which has fewer people than Texas. I talked to Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, about this lack of American exceptionalism:

DUBNER: Now, the average American sports fan, let’s say, someone who understands that soccer is a, how soccer works and understands the World Cup, that person probably thinks oh, U.S. National Soccer men’s team, failure. Last six World Cups they’ve not gotten out of the groups stage in three of those, and others they reached the round of 16 twice and the quarterfinals once. That’s it. And this is the U.S., which is a sport power in many if not most ways. So what’s the story, why not better?

GULATI: Well, a couple of things, there aren’t many countries that are qualified for the last seven World Cups like we’ve just done. There are some. But unlike some of the other sports in which the U.S. is dominant in, this sport is played in every country in the world, and it’s the number one sport in probably 95 percent of those countries. There’s a few where baseball or cricket may be number one. So this is a real world champion where I don’t want to use terms like life and death but where it’s extraordinarily important where you’ve got countries with several million in habitants who take it very, very seriously. So to be world champion leaving aside some of the other sports in the U.S. where we declare world champions.

FINAL SECONDS OF SUPER BOWL XVIII: The Seattle Seahawks, the first world championship in franchise history. The Seahawks are world champs.

GULATI: In this case there are 208 countries that play. We’re not a newcomer, we’ve been doing this a long time, but other countries have taken it far more seriously at a much earlier stage. And it’s not just down to the fact that we’ve got 320 million people and are a relatively affluent country because then China would be very good in one of those arenas and some of the European countries which haven’t done as well would also be at the top. So we’ve made a lot of improvements, and if we could replicate the progress that we’ve made both on and off the field over the last quarter century, then I think we will be where we want to be in the next quarter century, which is one of the elite powers in the world.

DUBNER: That said, the U.S. used to be relatively good at soccer. The first World Cup in 1930 they played and famously beat England in 1950. But then there were those, I think 40 years, so 10 cups, or nine cups where the U.S. did not qualify… Can you explain what happened to a sport that was pretty prominent in a country like this fall off so far?

GULATI: Well in many ways what was happening 70 or 80 years ago there weren’t professional leagues in the same way there are now. That’s changed very much. Second in the U.S. American football and baseball took hold in a major way. So what you had back in the 30s, the 40s, and even our 1950 team were a number of ethnic players who were first or second generation young players and came to the U.S., either were born here or with their families and so we were competitive…But saying that we were a very good team, or competitive in the 30s… is the same thing to me as saying that at one time India on an economic development level was one of the richest countries in the world. All right that doesn’t, obviously it’s a different time horizon and a different issue. But that doesn’t mean that it’s got all the necessary ingredients to stay the course for several hundred years, or in the soccer case 80 years.

DUBNER: Now, you’ve given a lot of compelling and resonant suggestions for why U.S. men’s soccer is not “better” and that it seems to be heading in a direction where it is better than it has been. But here to me is the biggest mystery. Men’s team is ranked 14th, if we look at the women’s rankings however, number one is the U.S. women’s soccer team. Beyond that they’ve had massive success, winning the World Cup twice, never finishing lower than third. So how can it be that our men are so, let’s call it promising for the moment, very good and promising, and the women are just totally kickass, why such a divide?

GULATI: Well, I think there’s a few different reasons. One is the role of women in American society is very different and has been different for a longer period of time than it is for many countries around the world. So whether it’s women in the workforce, or voting rights, all sorts of things, that movement, that liberation, those positive steps happen in the U.S. much earlier than they did in many countries around the world that we could name pretty easily. Second is we invested far more resources in the women’s team than almost anyone else in the world at an early step. So we had a head start. And unlike technology where you might have a patent, we didn’t have a patent on this and the gap has narrowed certainly. But we had lots of girls and women playing. We had early success, which gave us role models, and Mia Hamm and world champions. We had something that was very important in that process Title IX, and that changed dramatically the number of girls that had university scholarships. So I think all of those things changed the landscape in terms of women’s soccer.

[MUSIC: Abbas Premjee, “Waiting Patiently”]

DUBNER: One more reason the U.S. women’s national soccer team is so great: the best homegrown American female athletes aren’t necessarily diverted to big-money sports like basketball or football. Like this guy was:

LUCK: Hey, Andrew Luck.

DUBNER: Luck, you may recall, is the Stanford graduate who’s also an NFL quarterback.

LUCK: And also diehard Houston Dynamo fan. And happy to be here.

DUBNER: Luck’s father, Oliver, used to run the Houston Dynamo. Before that, he was an NFL quarterback himself – when he stopped playing, he helped run NFL Europe. So when Andrew was a kid, the family moved to Europe. Andrew grew up playing and watching a lot of soccer in Germany and England.

LUCK: I think part of my affinity for soccer is not necessarily the game but, I don’t want to say pageantry, but the emotions involved in the clubs… and the people. I think the political, the geopolitical struggles, I think is the most powerful thing. I think we always, when talking to people who maybe don’t know the sport as well, they bring up the Barcelona versus Madrid…Madrid, the seat of power in Spain, and forcing the culture of Barcelona down at one point, right? You couldn’t speak the language, you couldn’t read the books. They couldn’t wave their flag. So the stadium, the Nou Camp is what it’s called—I may be totally off here, but this is my understanding of it—was one of the few platforms where you could express yourself as a citizen of Barcelona, and speak the language, and wave the flag. I think that’s a very powerful thing and it’s obviously something we don’t have in this country. The closest might be college football down in the South. But that’s different and I think there’s a different culture surrounding it, with the tailgating and everything else. I think in Europe, soccer seems much more…physically, it seems ingrained in the neighborhoods. You walk along and ‘Oh, there’s a stadium,’ right next to a bunch of houses…

DUBNER: Yeah, yeah. Because as you said, a color of a flag or a uniform or a scarf or whatever represents hundreds of years of political history and everything else. So translate that, then, blow that up for me to the bigger stage, which is now World Cup. And talk to me just for a minute about how, again, you see fans’ attachments to their national teams and to the World Cup generally versus U.S. sports fans’ attachment to our national team.

LUCK: I think it’s very funny, in one sense. You think about watching the Olympics every two years, that our country really cares about who’s representing us, and we tend to forget all the names. I think you’d find folks around the world with their national soccer teams who remember every starting lineup of every game that’s been played in the past 30 years. It seems to be sort of the stage for how their country’s viewed around the world. If you think of a country as a business, it’s almost their marketing, almost their PR side of it.

DUBNER: Let’s talk a little bit about the economics of professional soccer in this country. First of all, talk to me about the financial incentives at play. MLS, Major League Soccer, salary caps have risen a lot. And attendance has risen and even viewership is rising. How much of a factor do you think it is, in building a sport like the MLS, is the pure financial incentive? In other words, as soccer pays more, will some of the best American athletes start to move into that more? That’s what theory would predict at least, right?

LUCK: Yeah, I think people tend to follow money, when it comes down to it. I think there’s now three designated player spots for MLS teams. I want to say the salary cap’s at around $5 million, and that doesn’t include those DP slots. So I’m sure it gets stretched a little thin towards the back end of the roster, which I think, from my understanding, are probably the same in all sports. The longer you go in the season, the more you get worn down. That’s where you may lose your quality, on the pitch, on the field, whatever arena you’re in. I think by having Dempsey and Michael Bradley, guys in their prime come back to the States and get good money and show that it is quality—soccer, that it is a quality product—and they’re putting it back on the field, I think that’s huge for the league. And great for fans. Great for me. Great to be able to watch those guys.

DUBNER: What do you think it would take for American soccer to explode… When Tiger Woods started playing professional golf and dominating in a way that nobody’d ever seen—even Nicklaus didn’t dominate in the way that Tiger did—it changed the perception of literally a generation of potential athletes. So all the guys playing in the PGA now who are, let’s say, between 20 and 30 say that when Tiger began doing what he did, they paid attention in a different way. And Tiger’s dominance brought a lot of money to the sport, which trickles down to everybody. And there are a lot of people who became golfers who wouldn’t have become golfers without Tiger Woods. Plain and simple. I’m curious if you think a sort of parallel like that might exist, or be worthwhile, in pro soccer in the U.S.? And if so, who’s out there? Who might be out there to be that Pied Piper?

LUCK: I think more of a Pied Piper would be a U.S. national team, you know, winning the World Cup. As we know, we love winners in this country. I was a little angry and sad that we didn’t win the medal count at the Winter Olympics…It’s sort of ingrained in our society. So I don’t know if there’s one player that would be a Pied Piper that would bring everything with him, be a Tiger Woods. I do think our national team winning the World Cup would be unbelievable.

[MUSIC: Squidley, “Matt’s Dream” (from Welcome to My Spaceship!)]

DUBNER: I’m curious, I’ve always wanted to ask you — I don’t know if you’ll want to answer this question or not, but I did always want to ask you: You were the number one overall NFL draft pick a few years ago, which is a big, big, big deal. And you signed a four-year contract for a reported $22 million dollars over four years, which to most people listening to this program, or any program, is an incredible amount of money. So I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you but through a quirk of history and labor relations, you came into the league just one year after this new labor agreement went into effect between the players and the owners. And that vastly lowered the amount that a team could pay rookies, rookie signings at the top level. So, for instance, the guy who came in two years before you, Sam Bradford, also the number one NFL pick, got $78 million over six years. Now, I guess I’d ask you two things about that. And if you don’t want to answer this, that’s fine, but I’d love to hear what you have to say. First of all, you kinda got legislated out of an extra 20, 30, 40, depending on how you want to count it, 50 million dollars. A. How did you feel about that? It was through no fault of your own. It was through a labor agreement. Were you burned or bummed? Or did you just think, my timing was a little off and I’m still extremely fortunate?

LUCK: There was an initial, maybe half a second pang of bitterness at my parents for not having my earlier. But once I realized that, you know, you can waste your whole life worrying about things you can’t control, right? So I haven’t lost any sleep over it. And actually, as I’ve sort of gone into year three now, and talking to folks in our union and or each other, our teammates and folks at the front office, I realize the thought process behind it all. And I’m OK with it.

DUBNER: That is the best blaming of parents I’ve ever heard, I have to say. People blame their parents for a lot of things, but that one was, that’s worth it. Here’s the real question having to do with that. So the NFL is easily the most successful sport in America, probably in American history. And yet, there are these pressures on the NFL. There’s the concussion issue, which is surely scaring some potential participants away. There’s the financial issue. People are still getting paid a lot to play in the NFL, but if you look at the aggregate numbers, the average NFL salary—considering how short the career is and how difficult the career is, physically and otherwise—in a lot of ways, soccer begins to look like a really nice viable alternative if you’re a great American athlete. You can play for a long time. It’s a contact sport, for sure, but not the way the NFL is. And now there seems to be this money flowing in. So I’m curious, predicting the future is impossible, but could you look down the road and envision a future where soccer does establish, if not a dominance, then at least a real secondary or tertiary prominence in the American sports landscape? Or, do you think we’re destined to be the country that doesn’t go along with all the other countries—we have our sports and they have theirs?

LUCK: Yeah. I think two things. One, I think there’s definitely enough room in the sort of sports culture for Soccer to keep gaining traction. I don’t want to say ‘take’ traction. I think it is big in some areas of the States right now. And two, I don’t think we’re gonna always be the little brother, in a sense, in the soccer world. Our mindset in this country is we have to be the best. Right? And eventually, enough people are gonna care about it. And hopefully it’s this year. Hopefully we’re the best at this World Cup. But I think it’s a matter of time before we are the best. Only a matter of time.

[MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “$4/Gal” (from Outcries From A Sea Of Red)]

DUBNER: For the final word, I went back to the source who follows the sport more closely than anyone I happen to know. Conveniently, he also lives under my roof.

Solomon DUBNER: Solomon Dubner. … Thirteen. … Sports writer.

Stephen DUBNER: So what do you think it says about how soccer or football is different as a sport than the American sports that we’re used to?

Solomon DUBNER: Well, it definitely unites the whole world because it’s in some ways it’s a universal language. Almost everywhere in the world plays and follows football, in every country pretty much. And it just unites everyone somehow, it’s kind of crazy.

Stephen DUBNER: Why do you think Americans generally are less enthusiastic about footy than most people around the world. Because as you said, it’s this kind of universal love, universal sport, but here, not so much. Why do you think that is?

Solomon DUBNER: Well, there’s so many other sports that America is good at. And we just haven’t been the best at football. It’s weird, it’s kind of an unknown mystery in ways. I think though that a success in Brazil this summer will go a long way towards promoting football in the United States.

DUBNER: You hear that, Team U.S.A.? It’s on your shoulders. Don’t let my kid down.


Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Podcast Transcripts"
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