Prostitutes and Rice: Announcing the Winners

When I casually offered some Freakonomics schwag to the person who could find the most compelling similarity between prostitutes and rice, I didn’t expect much of a reader response, especially given that the contest wasn’t mentioned in the headline and came buried after paragraphs of rather dry economic argument.

I knew, however, that I was mistaken as soon as the hate emails began to pour in. More than 600 reader comments later, I was stunned by both the anger and the creativity that this blog post triggered. For those of you who were offended by the post, the goal wasn’t to dehumanize anyone, but rather to a) show how not all economic analysis you read is correct, and b) get people thinking.

I didn’t have any particular answer in mind — to me it seemed that there were hardly any two things provided by the market that were much more different than prostitutes and rice — but I know from past experience that there is no limit to what our blog readers can produce when incentivized by the prospect of a Freakonomics yo-yo.

Alas, many of the most creative comments have since been purged since they were judged to violate Times policy. (The primary determinant of satisfying Times policy, it would seem from looking at the remaining comments, is that the comment must renounce me.)

Luckily, I had the chance to go through almost all the comments before they were deleted. There were so many interesting comments, taking so many different forms, that any of 100 comments could have been judged winners. In the end, I picked two winning entries that had a simple elegance which appealed to me:

No. 1: “They both get tossed at weddings.”


No. 2: “The wild and dirty versions of both command premium prices.”

The first one isn’t really economics, it is just clever. The second one is both clever and invokes the most fundamental economic force there is: prices.

Congratulations, respectively, to John Talbott and Carl Kay, authors of the winning entries.

Honorable mention goes to Scott Schneider, who confided to me that “his uncle Ben has an unhealthy obsession with both.”


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  1. Emily W says:

    “For those of you who were offended by the post, the goal wasn’t to dehumanize anyone, but rather to a) show how not all economic analysis you read is correct, and b) get people thinking.”

    Do you realize that your goal is not necessarily what you achieved? To compare the bodies of women to a grain that is sold and consumed IS dehumanizing, no matter whether you got people thinking or not.

    Whether dehumanization was your goal is not the point.

    I’m saddened that you are unable to see WHY people were upset about the way you phrased your challenge.

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  2. Brant P says:

    How do you know he was referring to women? Men can be prostitutes as well.

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  3. Kevin K says:

    Prostitution is itself, by definition, dehumanizing to begin with – women offering up their bodies for sale and (in a way) consumption. There was nothing about the challenge that caused to become more so, which is why I cannot understand WHY people are getting so upset about it.

    Be upset about what prostitution is, not by the seeking to draw a comparison between two totally disparate things.

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  4. AaronS says:

    Speaking of the posting policy, I have noticed that several of my posts that come from a Christian perspective never make the cut, though they are, of course, brilliant, entertaining, witty, wise, insightful, and so forth (smile).

    Seems the gatekeepers won’t to be careful that a certain unmentionable Name and a certain worldview don’t get a strong hearing.

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  5. Garbanzo says:

    At least if you had run a contest comparing rice to the organ transplantation market, you would have received some interesting recipes.

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  6. dd says:


    It is sad. It’s also sad that he ignored the better judgment of the people who were implementing the Times policy by circumventing their deletions.

    Mr. Levitt, I’ve been a fan for years now and this is really shocking. If you don’t see the offense, please just accept that it’s offensive and resist posting about prostitutes in the future. If you don’t get why you’ve offended, you’ll just keep doing it, as you have here.

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  7. Kyle A says:

    Everyone who is “offended” by this post needs to take a step back and relax.

    Prostitutes are SELLING their bodies to be CONSUMED. It’s a valid comparison. Call it what is and don’t hide the truth of the matter behind some perceived injustice just because you don’t like the thought of it.

    Why must words always be so shocking(!) to the supposed enlightened folk?

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  8. Justin James says:

    Something I found not only offensive, but ignorant in the original post is when he mentioned “buying a prostitute” or “purchasing a prostitute”, as opposed to “the prostitute’s services”. When you buy a *person*, who are not a “john”, you are a “slave trader”. Makes me wonder what his underlying attitude towards prostitutes is.


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