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. Jim says:

    Emily – While Levitt could (should?) have asked about the economics of prostitutes’ services instead of prostitutes themselves, I found the comments calling him sexist (and at least one even said racist!) to be rather silly. Nowhere was it implied that a john would be purchasing “the bodies of women.”

    Would their have been a similar outcry if he had asked “What do birthday clowns and broccoli have in common?”

    BTW: they are both kind of scary when you are young, but somehow seem worth purchasing when you get older.

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  2. Nate says:

    Don’t worry, Steven, you may post about abortion and dealing crack instead.

    (On second thought, since you’re trying not to offend people, you better stop posting completely.)

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  3. J. Edwards says:

    If you are looking for an economic reason for why rice and prostitutes are the same, why not go with a truly economic statement?

    For a certain portion of the demand curve, demand for both goes up, while prices rise. For rice, it’s true Giffen behavior exhibited by poor Chinese consumers. (http://freakonomics.com/tag/robert-giffen/) For prostitutes is that they are, in part a “luxury good”: Higher price, higher quality, more demand.

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  4. mike says:

    Economists are able to look at subjects dispassionately. A subset (like prostitutes) can have something in common with something else (like rice) whether we stop to observe how deplorable prostitution might be or not. The haters seem to have inferred some glibness that I didn’t necessarily detect.

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  5. Jeffrey says:

    It must be hard to be offended by life like many of the folks leaving comments on both the original post and this one.

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  6. Billy says:

    Wow, most of the people complaining here about this post need to get a life. It is precisely these kind of interesting comparisons to seemingly unrelated subjects that we read this blog. Get over yourselves. Hate the game, not the player.

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  7. D. Johnson says:

    Very weird. There were a couple of posts (one of which was mine) that built on the old Cheers episode in which Cliff Clavin appears on Jeopardy and blows the final question by saying “Who are three people that have never been in my kitchen?” I don’t see how those violated the Times policy, but I don’t see them anymore.

    Maybe I’ll need to include some boilerplate language about Steven being an insensitive chauvinist moron in my future posts to ensure that they don’t get deleted.

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  8. Henry says:

    You should write a book implying a correlation between abortion and reduced crime. That would really draw some heat.

    Oh, wait…

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