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.”

and

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. Chetan Gangoli says:

    I saw many more comments on prostitution than on rice… here my attempt to balance it a bit.

    Assume that rice is not only the staple of chinese farmers, but also their primary output. Any rise in prices would mean that they need to sell less of it in the market to buy goods other than rice – leaving more for household consumption. Not sure if data confirms this, but it might just be a significant reason for rice being a ‘Geffen’ good.

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  2. Tim Slaughter says:

    I say that they both are Giffen goods. It’s very much like coffe, chocolate, getting your hair done, or even a great massage. The better the price normally means that the product is worth what you are going to be paying. Sometimes it may seem too high or too low, depending on your standards or even own opinion on the brand. What do they have in common? I’d say if not for the fate of my grade.

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  3. Anon says:

    I’m here late in the game, but there were less than a handful to take the route of what I thought of this, so here it is…It is an insult to the rice to compare it with prostitution.

    I agree with those who were outraged at the thought that a staple food would be considered a Giffen good. It requires that all else is constant. If the price of rice went up but the price of vegetables and meat stayed constant, the amount of other foods bought and consumed would go up and less rice would be eaten. This is a phenomenon that happens in every Chinese household regardless of whether they are in rural China or a California manse.

    Prostitution is an entertainment comodity and not a basic sustenance, and an expensive one at that, so therefore more often purchased by the wealthy, not the poor. And the more money a person has, the more prostitution services that person will purchase. The poor are more likely to masturbate to meet their sexual needs.

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