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Date: Friday, 29 Aug 2014 16:00

Considering its own company name, you wouldn’t think so. But here’s what I ran into during a recent spell-check:

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 4.25.36 PM

Author: "Stephen J. Dubner" Tags: "Freakonomics Blog"
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Date: Thursday, 28 Aug 2014 13:58

(Photo: James Cridland)

(Photo: James Cridland)

This week’s podcast is a rebroadcast of our episode called “Who Runs the Internet?” (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; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

Does virtual mayhem — from online ranting to videogame violence — help reduce mayhem in the real world? Though Steve Levitt says there is no solid data on this, in the episode he and Stephen Dubner hypothesize:

LEVITT: Maybe the biggest effect of all of having these violent video games is that they’re super fun for people to play, especially adolescent boys, maybe even adolescent boys who are prone to real violence. And so if you can make video games fun enough, then kids will stop doing everything else. They’ll stop watching TV, they’ll stop doing homework, and they’ll stop going out and creating mayhem on the street.

This episode then moves on to a bigger question about the Internet itself: who runs it? As Dubner asks: “Who’s in charge of the gazillions of conversations and transactions and character assassinations that happen online every day?”

Internet scholar Clay Shirky, author of HereComes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, tells us that 60 percent of adults around the world are now connected to the same communications grid. And this global connectivity is interesting, he says, because it’s not like there is an international body governing what’s online.

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Featured Radio Post, Freakonomics Blog, ..."
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Date: Thursday, 21 Aug 2014 13:41

(Photo: @gueamu)

This week’s podcast is a rebroadcast of our episode  “Parking Is Hell.” (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

The episode begins with Stephen Dubner talking to parking guru Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and author of the landmark book The High Cost of Free Parking. In a famous Times op-ed, Shoup argued that as much as one-third of urban congestion is caused by people cruising for curb parking. Michael Manville, a city planning professor at Cornell, and co-author Jonathan Williams found that in Los Angeles, “at any given time almost 40 percent of vehicles parked at meters are both not paying and not breaking any laws.”

You’ll also hear from MIT professor Eran Ben-Joseph, whose book ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking offers solutions to improve the parking lot. He gives us a sense of how many surface parking spaces there are in the U.S. (close to 800 million) and points out that in some cities, parking lots cover a full third of the land area downtown.

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Featured Radio Post, Freakonomics Blog, ..."
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Date: Wednesday, 20 Aug 2014 21:58

This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Parking is Hell

[MUSIC: Artist Name; “Song Title” (from Album Title)]

[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound; “Don’t Touch My Popcorn” (from Let’s Cool One)]

Donald SHOUP: I think, you know, 50 years from now, when people look back on New York, and of course other cities, that they’ll say, ‘What did these people think they were doing?’

Stephen J. DUBNER: That’s Donald Shoup. He is a college professor, at UCLA, who is obsessed—well it’s not really fair to call him obsessed—who is…Yeah, actually he is obsessed. He’s obsessed with this one thing that we all do, all over the world, and that we do so badly, in Shoup’s opinion, that someday, we’ll look back at it the way we now look back at…

SHOUP: Bloodletting.

DUBNER: Seriously, bloodletting?

SHOUP: It seemed scientific because there were elaborate tables and diagrams, and it had to be done by surgeons and stuff. No, it was very harmful. The other comparison, which I think is much more appropriate, is lead therapy. Lead was thought to be a wonderful healing device. And it is because it’s toxic to microorganisms. And therefore if you put it on a wound it would help kill the infection. But people didn’t know that it also damaged the brain.

DUBNER: Okay, so what do you think Professor Shoup is talking about? What is this thing we do so badly that future generations will compare it to bloodletting and lead therapy?

SHOUP: Maybe the most mismanaged of all our resources is parking.

DUBNER: Parking?!

MAN 1: It’s terrible, it’s really terrible.

MAN 2: It’s crazy, it’s horrible, it’s way out of hand.

MAN 3: I’ve driven around for an hour looking for a spot.

WOMAN 1: Most people don’t know what they’re doing, and I really want to like go out there and be like, I will park your car for you.

MAN 4: Yeah, it’s a total nightmare.

DUBNER: Yeah , parking.

[THEME]

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. The podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

[MUSIC: Susie Ibarra; “Azul” (from Songbird Suite)]

DUBNER: If I asked you to name the worst things about modern society, maybe the 10 worst things, I’m guessing that parking would not make your list, might not even make a top 20 list. And yet, especially if you live or work in a city, you’ve probably been scarred, at some point, by parking.

MAN 5: I used to park on the sidewalk and get tickets, but there was sort of no other place to go.

SHOUP: Everybody has stories of parking horror that we don’t have about stories about horror in grocery stores, or with milk, or anything else.  And they had stories about, you know, even murders over parking spaces.

DUBNER: That’s Donald Shoup again, from UCLA. He is a transportation scholar who is one of the world’s leading authorities on parking. Now, you might think that any right-thinking transportation scholar would study, you know, transport. But as Shoup helpfully points out, the average car spends about 95 percent of its lifetime parked.

Shoup trained as an economist, and his economist roots often show when he talks about parking. Because in his view, the biggest problem with parking is the price. Not too expensive, too cheap! He is the author of a nearly 800-page book called The High Cost of Free Parking.

SHOUP: Everybody likes free parking, including me, probably you. But just because the driver doesn’t pay for it doesn’t mean that the cost goes away. If you don’t pay for parking your car, somebody else has to pay for it. And that somebody is everybody. We pay for free parking in the prices of the goods we buy at places where the parking is free. And we pay for parking as residents when we get free parking with our housing. We pay for it as taxpayers. Increasingly I think we’re paying for it in terms of the environmental harm that it causes. I did use data to estimate that parking subsidies in the United States are somewhere between 1 and 4 percent of the total GNP, which is about in the range of what we spend for Medicare or national defense. So that’s the cost of parking not paid for by drivers.

DUBNER: There are of course many different parking scenarios. If you live in a house with a driveway or a garage, parking is a snap, at least when you’re at home. In suburban or exurban areas, you’ve got big, usually free, parking lots set back from the street at office parks and malls and restaurants. And then you’ve got cities, some of which offer free parking right there on the street, curbside. But here’s Donald Shoup again to explain why that free parking isn’t as free as you think.

SHOUP: If you don’t have an off-street space and you have a car, and you live in New York, you have to drive around looking for a space hoping to see somebody going out. There was a study done in New York, a very ingenious method, though simple in retrospect is that the researchers interviewed drivers who were stopped at traffic lights in Manhattan and Brooklyn and asked them if they were cruising for parking. And on Prince Street in Manhattan, 28 percent of the drivers said that they were hunting for parking, even though most people were not destined for the area, they were just traveling through the area. So those are people who don’t want to be driving, they want to be parked. We did a study here in Los Angeles lasting a full year cruising for parking ourselves, going to a destination and then hunting for as long as it took to find a parking space. We made 240 observations. When you add it up, the average time it took to space was only three minutes, that’s two and a half times around the block, which doesn’t seem like very much. It’s about half a mile hunting for parking. But when you add up all the people who are parking in Westwood Village, if they had the same average that we had, that adds up to 3,600 vehicle miles of travel a day. That’s the distance across the U.S., and that’s just in the 15-block area of Westwood. If you add it up for a year, that’s equal to 36 trips around the Earth or four trips to the moon hunting for underpriced curb parking in a little 15-block area. And I think it’s happening all over the world. When other people do these studies, they find very similar results.

DUBNER: I’m just curious, when we talk about urban and suburban sprawl that many people hate, I think, you know, the common image is you’re cruising down that street that has a lot of stoplights because there are a lot of turns, there are a lot of turns because there are a lot of shops. There are a lot of shops and they all have big parking lots. And that whole chain reaction causes a lot of congestion, confusion, accidents, pollution, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. When you think of that scenario, how much of that scenario do you think of as caused by the ancient practice of offering free parking everywhere you go?

SHOUP: Well it isn’t ancient.

DUBNER: Ancient I mean 1950s or 1960s. You know…

SHOUP: That’s right. City planners in every city, including large parts of New York, specify the minimum number of parking spaces required for every building depending on its use. A restaurant typically requires at least 10 spaces per thousand square feet, which means that the parking lot is three times bigger than the restaurant. And if nothing can be built unless it meets that parking requirement, and the parking requirement was established on the assumption that everybody’s going to park free, well it does seem to be kind of self-fulfilling that people drive to it.

[MUSIC: Cale Pellick; “Sunday Stroll”]

DUBNER: Every city has its own parking requirements, but here’s a typical scenario. To build a shopping center, you need four spaces for every 1,000 square feet of store. A public swimming pool requires one parking space for every 2,500 gallons of water. If you want to build a beauty shop, you need three spaces per beautician – but a nunnery needs only one space per 10 nuns.  

SHOUP: The required parking spreads buildings apart. It makes walking less pleasant. You know, the obvious way to travel is that, you know, we curse traffic, and stare at taillights, and breathe fumes, and then we expect to park free when we get there. But I think the upside of the mess that we’re in is a terrific opportunity that there’s all this vacant land that can be built on in cities. I mean I think we’re the Saudi Arabia of developable land in cities. If cities reduced, eliminated their minimum parking requirements, a lot of these parking lots could be built on for infill development.

DUBNER: So as Shoup points out, there are two distinct parking problems. In the suburbs, too much land goes to parking because of somewhat arbitrary requirements, and then those areas become harder to navigate, and walk in. And in cities, a lot of street parking is either free or underpriced, which leads to too many drivers cruising for spots. This creates even more congestion, pollution, and accident risk.

SHOUP: I think the world would be a lot better if we had never forced people to provide more parking than they’re willing to and if we had charged the right price for curb parking. What is the right price for curb parking? I would say that this is what’s been adopted in more and more cities is that the right price is the lowest price the city can charge and leave one or two vacant spaces on every block. So that nobody can say that it’s hard to find a space because wherever they go they see a space.

[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound; “The Cuber Bake” (from Let’s Cool One)]

DUBNER: That makes sense, doesn’t it? At least to an economist: if you’re selling something and so many people are trying to buy it that it makes a mess for everyone, you are plainly charging too little. So how do you fix that? Later in the program, we will hear how Donald Shoup and others are trying. But before we go micro, let’s go macro. Let’s get a sense of just how much parking we’re talking about in a country as big as the United States.

Eran BEN-JOSEPH: There are some cities where the ratio of surface parking is very high. Houston for example, sometimes could be 30 to 35 percent of the overall area.

DUBNER: Thirty to 35 percent of Houston is surface parking lot?

BEN-JOSEPH: Of some areas, yes.

DUBNER: Eran Ben-Joseph teaches urban studies and planning at MIT. He too has written a book about parking, called ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking. While Donald Shoup is the godfather of parking studies, Ben-Joseph is one of a growing number of what some people call “Shoupistas.” Ben-Joseph is an Israeli. He’s lived and worked all over the world.

BEN-JOSEPH: In the United States the first thing that you experience I think as somebody who comes from a smaller country that is much denser is the amount of open space, the lower density, and in a way to some extent the ample supply of available land is something striking. In that sense, dependency on the car and the lack of to some extent public transportation in some parts of the U.S. versus other countries, and those that I experienced first hand such as Japan, Israel and Europe, are very different.

DUBNER: I think if you ask most people what they think about parking, most people think or would say there’s not enough parking. For starters do we know, or do you know, how many parking spaces there are in America, let’s say?

BEN-JOSEPH: So, yeah, we tried to calculate that. And my interest was mainly on surface parking lots, which are, I guess, the lowest on the kind of evolution chain if you will of parking. Surface lots are the most mundane, cheapest type of parking that you can construct. We don’t have very good estimates. They run all over the map. But I think the best guess that I could give you is that there are about three parking spaces for every car in the United States.

DUBNER: Wow!

BEN-JOSEPH: So that’s for the whole country of course. And that’s only for passenger cars, right?

DUBNER: Oh my gosh.

BEN-JOSEPH: So if we have 250 million cars in the United States, passenger cars, and you multiply that by about an average of three. Now, of course people in New York will tell you, or somewhere, well there’s no way there are three parking spaces, but of course you have to look at it, you know, with regard to the whole country. So that brings it to almost 800 million spaces.

DUBNER: Again, is that just surface lots as you said?

BEN-JOSEPH: Those are just surface lots.

DUBNER: And then, in addition to surface lots there are what else?

BEN-JOSEPH: You have garages of course, you have people’s own parking spaces in their homes.

DUBNER: Driveways, yeah.

BEN-JOSEPH: Driveways, garages. I’m talking about public spaces or private spaces that are surface lots and not structured.

DUBNER: I see, and it may be hard to estimate, but what share of total parking spaces would you say that these surface lots constitute?

BEN-JOSEPH: You know, that’s a good one. I think that there’s somewhere between let’s say around seventy percent, sixty to seventy percent.

DUBNER: Okay, so if you’re saying that these surface lots constitute maybe sixty or seventy percent of the overall parking supply in the U.S. And then if we were to add in, let’s say the other, the rest of that 30 or 40 percent, we might get to a figure where there are roughly four or four and a half parking spots in America for every car.

BEN-JOSEPH: Yeah, and some people even claim that there are eight.

DUBNER: So how can we possibly complain that there’s not…Okay.

BEN-JOSEPH: Well, it’s exactly as you said. There’s a wonderful quote from somebody who, I can’t remember where it was, who calculated that in that particular city there were almost eight spaces per car. And then he published it, and I think people complain that I still can never find parking. So where are all these you know eight spaces for my car?

[MUSIC: Pat Andrews; “1960’s Bachelor Pad”]

DUBNER: In case you couldn’t tell, Eran Ben-Joseph doesn’t like all those surface lots, and not just because of the sprawl. Environmentally, paving over huge swaths of land isn’t a very good idea. So how to do better? Ben-Joseph has some thoughts. At the very least, you could break up huge lots with trees and vegetation. Paint the parking lots light colors so they don’t absorb so much heat. Use permeable paving materials to cut down on runoff. Now, to be honest, a lot of academics have neat ideas that they think will fix the world. And most of the time, no one pays attention to them. But a few years ago, something strange and potentially wonderful happened in the realm of parking. Some transportation officials in San Francisco who had read Donald Shoup’s work about the high cost of free parking decided to put one of his theories to the test.

SHOUP: If it works it will make San Francisco an even better place to live and do business and visit. It will just be yet another feather in the cap of San Francisco. And if it doesn’t work, they can blame it all on a professor from Los Angeles.

[MUSIC: Josh Bernasconi; “Baby on the Beach”]

DUBNER: When we come back, we’ll hear about that San Francisco parking experiment, and we’ll hear about an incredibly common fraud that threatens to ruin just about any parking reform.

[UNDERWRITING]

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

MAN 6: It sort of feels like you’re trapped, there’s no way out. You know when you get to a spot where you have to be and the parking is not happening, it’s just a miserable experience. I drove around looking for a space that wasn’t metered. It took me 25 minutes…

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: Michael Manville is an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University.

Michael MANVILLE: You know, cars are at their most useful to us when we’re driving them, and that’s when we think about them.

DUBNER: But we’re not talking about driving today. We’re talking about what happens to cars during the 95 percent of the time they’re not being driven. We’re talking about parking.

MANVILLE: I think that a lot of transportation scholarship deals with driving the same way that everyday people do, which is just you know out of sight out of mind. You know, once you’re not in your car, you know, as long as you’re pretty confident no one’s going to break into it, like, who cares?

DUBNER: So we can agree that you’re obsessed with the most boring part of car ownership, yes, parking?

MANVILLE: Yeah, that’s probably a fair characterization.

[MUSIC: Two Dark Birds; “Start All Over Again” (from Songs For the New)]

DUBNER: Manville got his Ph.D. at UCLA, under parking guru Donald Shoup. And it is Shoup’s research that recently inspired the city of San Francisco to try an experiment called SF Park. Here’s Shoup again.

SHOUP: Well it’s a pilot project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation to look at the effects of trying to get the price of parking right. It’s easy to explain. They have sensors in the ground to measure the occupancy of each of 7,000 spaces, usually about eight spaces on each block. And on blocks where they find a high occupancy, if they’re all full, they nudge up the price. And on blocks where there are a lot of empty spaces, they nudge the prices down. They don’t do it every day, they change the prices every six weeks. They have different prices at different times of the day, before noon, from noon to three, and after 3 p.m., but those prices can be different on different blocks.

DUBNER: Changing prices like that, based on demand and time of day, is called dynamic pricing. In some industries, it’s been happening for years—airline tickets, for instance. But for something like municipal parking – well, this is a pretty big deal. If you’re a guy like Mike Manville, the city planning professor at Cornell who studied under Shoup, this is incredibly exciting.

MANVILLE: So SF Park is probably the best experiment we have so far with the idea of sort of performance-priced curb parking. There’s two components to the sort of dynamic part of the dynamic pricing. And one is that at different times of day the prices are higher and lower. So at 9 a.m. the price might be $3, but at noon when you expect a lot of people to be out and about for lunch it might be $3.50. And then it might fall again by 4 p.m. back down to $3. So there’s a price change that happens over the course of a day. The other part of it is that each month SF Park evaluates overall occupancy and decides if the price on a particular block has to go up or down. So that same block face where the price was $3, then $3.50, then $3 over the course of a day in July, might by September be $4, $4.50, and $3.25 or something like that.

DUBNER: So the idea is to capture the true price of parking for that area.

MANVILLE: Yeah, you essentially establish a market in parking.

DUBNER: Scholars like Manville and Shoup argue that if you get the price of parking right, a lot of other problems get solved. Now, some drivers may have to pay more but they can park where they want to park when they want, which is good for drivers and good for businesses. There’d be less cruising for parking spots, which means less congestion and pollution. But, for dynamic-priced parking to work, you do need people who are supposed to pay for the parking spots to actually pay for them. And as Mike Manville discovered, that doesn’t always happen. He and a co-author ran a study of street parking in Los Angeles, which has the highest auto density of any American city. Manville and his team surveyed thousands of parking meters and found that, and I quote, “at any given time, almost 40 percent of vehicles parked at meters are both not paying and not breaking any laws.” What?!

MANVILLE: There’s three reasons why a vehicle could be sitting at a parking meter not having paid and not be breaking the law. And so the first one is simply that the meter’s failed. The other one is government credentials. So if you’re…

DUBNER: My counterfeit FBI placard that I put in my car.

MANVILLE: Exactly. And so a lot of places have actual rules that say if you’re a cop, or you work for a city council member in a particular car you don’t have to pay at meters.

DUBNER: Or if you’ve ever been married to someone who knew a cop pretty much. I mean, I‘m exaggerating, but we know that there are a lot of people who find a way to have a credential.

MANVILLE: Find a way to get a credential, and even in places where it’s actually not on the books that these people are exempt from meters, informally, nobody tickets a police officer, right? So that’s a share of nonpayment as well, legal nonpayment. And then the last one, and the big one is disability credentials, particularly the disabled placards that are hung from the rearview mirror. At the time we did that study, and I think this has changed a little bit, there was about 25 states where if you had a disabled credential, you could just pull up to any metered space, park for free, and often for very long periods of time.

DUBNER: Okay. What share roughly are each of these? Is the handicapped the largest of them?

MANVILLE: Yeah, far and away. The disabled placard really was the lion’s share. And I think that it’s useful to compare that category of nonpayment with the sort of traditional scofflaw, I’m just going to park and not pay, and it was twice that. You know, I think normally when we hear about cities losing meter revenue we just think about bad enforcement, and people aren’t paying, and nobody is busting them, but twice as many spaces were occupied by vehicles hanging disabled placards as by people who had just sort of chosen not to feed the meter.  

DUBNER: Right, so you’re saying in the paper that one of the reforms that would help solve this problem of wildly misused parking spaces is ending the practice of granting free time unlimited parking to vehicles displaying disabled placards. When you present a city or when a city learns of your research do they say oh wow, Mike, thanks for solving this for me, now we know why our parking was such a mess, all we got to do is get rid of all the handicapped placards. Does that happen?

MANVILLE: Oh yeah, I mean, people just jump on board this right away. I mean, there’s no elected official on Earth who doesn’t want to remove an entitlement that’s at least nominally for a disadvantaged group so they can charge everyone else more to park. I mean it’s just a, it’s a killer idea. No, of course not. This is political kryptonite to a certain extent. And that is the issue.

DUBNER: Is it frustrating for you in that do you feel that you identified the problem to solve that would not fix parking by any stretch but would certainly ease a significant strain on it. And yet because you identified a problem that’s politically not very savory that it’s probably not going to have much effect?

MANVILLE: Well, I mean in part, you know, sure there’s a little bit of frustration, but also that’s life, right? If I really wanted to, you know, get into the trenches and everything I wouldn’t be an academic. Right?

DUBNER: It’s nice to hear someone admit that actually.

MANVILLE: Yeah, there’s people who change the world, and there’s people who play with spreadsheets. And you know, I tend to fall in the latter camp.

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

DUBNER: Donald Shoup, maybe because he is the éminence grise of parking scholarship, aspires to both camps. He would really like to solve this implacable placard problem.

SHOUP: Placard abuse is just about everywhere. Everybody has a story, or many stories about it. Twenty-two U.C.L.A. football players were found with disabled placards. So a couple of states have done, found a really clever way to get around this. Michigan had a lot of placard abuse, so they have a two-tier system of disabled placards. They revised the laws so that only people who have extreme trouble walking or can’t use a meter because they have hand disabilities, only those people are eligible for a special placard that allows free parking at meters. The other people, they can use their disabled placards at disabled spots at grocery stores and things like that. Well, when this law came into effect, only 2 percent of the people with placards applied for the special placard, which required a doctor’s visit and showing that you had a real disability that prevented walking. So it solved most of the disabled placard abuse problem. I think we should really support the 2 percent, the 2 percent who really need the free parking because they can’t get to the meter. Illinois has copied this law. And I’m recommending it for California because there are blocks in Los Angeles you can walk along where you see every single car at the meter has a disabled placard, so it doesn’t make any difference what the price is. You know, it really undermines any attempt to manage parking.

DUBNER: The attempt to manage parking in San Francisco, SF Park, has been in place for more than a year. Prices move up and down at different times of the day, and on different blocks, according to demand. So, does SF Park work? That is, does it get the price of parking right, and if so, does that fix other problems? The short answer is we don’t know yet. It’ll be a while before there’s enough the data to answer the questions we really want to know, like do cars spend less time cruising for spots? Do buses run faster? Are pedestrians and bicyclists safer? Are businesses hurt, or helped? One thing we do know for sure is how the parking prices changed. Some blocks got more expensive, others, less. But the surprising thing—surprising at least to Donald Shoup—is that, overall, the price of street parking fell.

SHOUP: Everybody expected prices to go through the roof. And they said this is another money grab by the city, it’s a tax on motorists as part of the war on cars. But it turned out not to be that way. A lot of the spaces were overpriced. And I think it’s a good thing that the prices are lowered so that you get more customers for stores on the streets that have now lower prices. I think that’s one of the big surprises. But it’s true of any market. In real estate they say you know it’s location, location, location. The most convenient spaces are the ones that you’d expect to have higher prices, and the less convenient ones are the one you expect to have lower prices. And I think that what SF Park does is get the price right in every location. I think we’ll learn so much from this carefully controlled experiment that it should convince people that this is a good idea or not a good idea.

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

DUBNER: That’s right. It may be that, for all the care and logic put into an experiment like this, that something as seemingly simple as parking is hard to fix because of, well, because of how people respond to incentives. It may be, for instance, that all those people who get hold of handicapped placards and other parking credentials take up so many of the good spots for free, and for hours and hours and hours that smart parking will remain a dream. I asked Mike Manville what he’s learned from watching the best parking ideas from academia get put into play in the real world.  

MANVILLE: So I think it probably teaches all of us who are academics is that the real world is complicated and messy, that we come up with these ideas, and they seem entirely valid to us, and I think its very common for us as academics to sort of roll our eyes at policy makers and say oh why don’t they just listen to us. And I think it’s been kind of, it’s been very educational and occasionally humbling to watch ideas that I strongly believe in, you know, sort of get put into practice and see how difficult it is for the folks on the front lines to actually do them. So I think that it’s been a real learning process in both directions.

DUBNER: And Donald Shoup, as energetic and optimistic as he is, acknowledges that when you try to change how people park, you’re going up against a bigger enemy than a strip of asphalt. You’re going up against biology.

SHOUP: Of course Seinfeld always had episodes about hunting for parking. I think one of the quotes I like best from Seinfeld is when I think George and Elaine were driving to Jerry’s apartment, and George says , “I never pay for parking. Paying for parking is like going to a prostitute…

[SEINFELD] Why should I pay when if I apply myself maybe I can get it for free?”

SHOUP: …And I think, I think so many people are trying to get it for free. You know, we didn’t become a great nation by being a bunch of freeloaders and expecting something for nothing. But when it comes to parking, I think, you know, our brains shift down to a lower level of intellectual performance. I think we use the reptilian cortex of our brains, the earliest, most primitive part of the brain that makes fight or flight decisions, or how to avoid being eaten, or how to get food. And we would say things about parking that we would never say about something we really knew about.

[MUSIC: Two Dark Birds; “Pie Eyed” (from Songs For the New)]

DUBNER: Thanks to Donald Shoup, all of us at least know a little bit more about parking. But the future? That’s harder to know. Parking might get worse, or, for all kinds of reasons, might get better. The world keeps getting more urbanized, which means more people on foot, on bikes, mass transit. Maybe car-sharing will become more popular, which would lessen parking demand. And, most exciting, to me at least, is the future of the driverless car. Now, some smart people think in 10 or 20 years, most cars will be controlled by computers rather than accident-prone, Instagram-addicted, coffee-drinking, eyeliner-applying human beings. Now, if all cars were driverless, would you still need to own one, or would you be willing to just summon one, the way you now call a cab? It would come pick you up, then drop you off and instead of having to park at the curb and wait for you, it could come pick me up, or one of any other million people nearby, and then, when you’re done doing whatever you’re doing, you summon a different car to come get you. How great would that be? And how much less parking would we need? Maybe a lot less. And then comes the really hard part: what do we do with those millions and millions and millions of parking spaces we’ve built all over the world? Hmm. More nunneries maybe?

This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Parking is Hell

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Podcast Transcripts"
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Date: Thursday, 14 Aug 2014 13:31

This week’s podcast is a rebroadcast of our episode called “What Do Medieval Nuns and Bo Jackson Have in Common?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

(Photo: Kevin Dooley)

(Photo: Kevin Dooley)

The episode is about spite. As in “cutting off your nose to spite your face” spite. Lisi Oliver, a linguist at Louisiana State University, tells us about the probable origin of this phrase. You’ll also hear Bo Jackson talk about a costly decision he once made that most people would certainly think of as spiteful — and from Dave O’Connor, executive producer of the documentary film You Don’t Know BoThe economist Benedikt Herrmann tries to measure spite in the lab (papers are herehere and here).

Why are people willing to hurt others even when it is costly to themselves?

Steve Levitt warns that the real world is more complicated than any lab — and wonders, therefore, if pure spite even exists.

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Featured Radio Post, Freakonomics Blog, ..."
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Date: Thursday, 07 Aug 2014 13:01

(Photo: Aaron Stidwell)

This week’s podcast is a rebroadcast of our episode called “Should Tipping Be Banned?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

As we all know, the practice of tipping can be awkward, random, and confusing. This episode tries to offer some clarity. At its center is Cornell professor Michael Lynn, who has written 51 academic papers on tipping.

The practice of tipping is one of the most irrational, un-economic behaviors we engage in. It’s not in our economic best-interest to tip; essentially we do it because it’s a social norm — a nicety. In this episode of Freakonomics Radio, Stephen Dubner looks at why we tip, what kinds of things can nudge tips upward, and what’s wrong with tipping overall. Research shows that African American waiters make less in tips than people of other races, so tipping is a discriminatory practice. In the end, we wonder whether or not the practice of tipping should be eliminated altogether.

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Featured Radio Post, Freakonomics Blog, ..."
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Date: Thursday, 31 Jul 2014 15:35

This week’s podcast is a rebroadcast of our episode called “How Much Does Your Name Matter?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

The gist: a kid’s name can tell us something about his parents — their race, social standing, even their politics. But is your name really your destiny?

The episode draws from a Freakonomics chapter called “A Roshanda By Any Other Name” and includes a good bit of new research on the power of names. We talk with NYU sociologist Dalton Conley and his two children, E Harper Nora Jeremijenko-Conley and Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles Jeremijenko-Conley. Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney talks about Google ads, and how a search for people with distinctively black names was more likely to produce an ad suggesting the person had an arrest record – regardless of whether that person had ever been arrested. We also talk to Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, about his new research that looks at how children’s names are influenced by their parents’ political ideology. Lastly, Steve Levitt and Roland Fryer argue that a first name doesn’t seem to affect a person’s economic life at all.

We hope you enjoy this episode, whatever your name might be.

Author: "Freakonomics" Tags: "Featured Radio Post, Freakonomics Blog, ..."
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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 Radio Post, Freakonomics Blog, ..."
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Date: Thursday, 24 Jul 2014 13:43

This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Does Religion Make You Happy?.

[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:

CONGREGATION: Amen!

[THEME]

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.

[UNDERWRITING]

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)]

This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Does Religion Make You Happy?.

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 Radio Post, Freakonomics Blog, ..."
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Date: Thursday, 17 Jul 2014 11:23

This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Why You Should Bribe Your Kids.

[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.

[THEME]

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.

[UNDERWRITING]

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)]

This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Why You Should Bribe Your Kids.

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

 

iTunes-July-Promo-F

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.

[THEME]

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.

[UNDERWRITING]

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?

LEVITT: Yes.

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?

KOBAYASHI: Soft.

JAMES: Soft ones.

DUBNER: What’s your favorite kind of steak?

KOBAYASHI: Uh, filet.

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

KOBAYASHI: Lean.

DUBNER:  What’s your favorite fish?

KOBAYASHI: Fish! Salmon.

DUBNER: Salmon. You like the skin or no?

KOBAYASHI: Yeah.

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.

[THEME]

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.

KOBAYASHI: Maybe.

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?

KOBAYASHI: Yes.

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]

JAMES: No.

DUBNER: He found another way to speed things up.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Separating the sausage from the bun.

DUBNER: Yeah.

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.

[UNDERWRITING]

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?

KOBAYASHI: 50.

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?

KOBAYASHI: Yes.

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?

KOBAYASHI: No!

DUBNER: Do you have two stomachs?

KOBAYASHI: Eh. No!

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.

KOBAYASHI: [Laughs]

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.

CREDITS

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.

1888679_681865095183696_94736708_n

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?

LEVITT: Yes.

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.

[THEME]

[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.

[UNDERWRITING]

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?

KOBAYASHI: No!

DUBNER: Do you have two stomachs?

KOBAYASHI: Eh. No!

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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