Your FREAK-quently Asked Questions, Answered

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Podcast
Freakonomics Radio

Freakonomics FAQ, No. 1: In which Levitt and Dubner field questions from the public and hold forth on everything from dating strategies and rock-and-roll accordion music to whether different nations have different economic identities. Oh, and also: is it worthwhile to vote?

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This week’s Freakonomics Radio podcast is a Q&A session in which Levitt and I (mostly Levitt – he’s the smart one) respond to the questions you submitted on this blog a while back. (You can download/subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed or listen live via the link in box at right.) It was a lot of fun to do, and if you don’t hate it, we’ll do it again sometime.

One question was from a reader named Thomas Lau:

With many different countries (including my own beloved Ireland) facing economic crises, I was wondering if you or others have looked at whether different economic groups or peoples have “economic personalities,” and if these fit in with existing stereotypes. Are the Americans enthusiastic go-getters while the Germans are reserved pragmatists? Who are the romantics? The gamblers? The cynics?


Levitt’s reply, in part:

I’m always hesitant to attribute differences, say, across countries, to the people who inhabit those countries as opposed to the incentives and the institutions that exist. So, if you think of a place like Spain or Italy, which has very high unemployment, you might say, “Well, that’s because people are lazy.” Or: you might say that’s because there are very high replacement rates. So that if you become unemployed, you’re paid almost as much as if you work. Or they have rules in place so that it’s impossible to fire people. Then it turns out that employers don’t want to hire a lot of people either because they know that the costs of hiring become much, much higher.

In response to another question, Levitt offered career advice:

Make sure that whatever you love doing is something other people don’t love to do. The worst thing in the world is to find some kind of job that everybody wants to do – like being a rock star. Stephen, you’ve tried to be a rock star, it’s hard work. Or a movie star. You have to find something that is idiosyncratically something you love but everyone else despises. So if your dream is to be a garbage man, for instance, you’re guaranteed to have success in life.

Also, some dating advice:

If I only had perfect foresight, I would realize that if you can actually have some success in life, you’ll get dates once you have success. … My advice would be: while you’re waiting to be successful, spend your time in becoming successful and worry about dates once you’re successful because it’ll be so much easier to get dates once you’re successful.

One reader asked about something we’ve discussed a few times in the past: the value of an individual vote. Levitt’s reply:

Nobody in their right mind votes because they think they’re going to affect the outcome of an election. If you look over the last hundred years of, say, elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, I think there’s been maybe one [very close] election that’s been decided by votes. And in the modern era, elections that are close are always decided by the courts. There’s always litigation – look at what happened with Bush against Gore. So in no meaningful way can you say that your vote will ever decide an election. The reasons for voting have to be something very different: it’s fun, your wife will love you more if you do it, it makes you feel like a proud American – but never should anyone delude themselves into thinking that the vote they cast will ever decide an election. … Just about anything you do with your time would be more productive [than voting].

Someone also asked whether Levitt or I is smarter. (Puh-leeze.) And someone wanted to know if I still play rock-and-roll accordion. (Short answer: no.) But in the outro of the episode, you’ll hear a piece of music from my old band, The Right Profile, with a little accordion underlayer. FWIW, one of my former bandmates, Jeffrey Dean Foster, is still making music; and so is our great drummer, Jon Wurster, who played for years with Superchunk and many others. The song here is called “Slip Your Hand Inside My Coat.”

Thanks again for all the good questions. Hope you like the show.

Audio Transcript

Does College Still Matter and Other Freaky Questions Answered

 

Stephen J. DUBNER: What kind of questions do you think we're gonna get here?  Do you think they'll be like life advice, stock advice, or more like you know, boxers-or-briefs kind of questions?

Steven D. LEVITT: Ummm...

ANNOUNCER: Freak-quently Asked Questions from Freakonomics Radio.  Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: So, you know, I'm just a writer and a radio host.  But my Freakonomics friend and co-author, Steven Levitt, he's a genuine PhD-holding research economist at the University of Chicago.  So once in a while, I like to drag him in front of my microphone to field some questions from you, our listeners and from readers of the Freakonomics blog.  We call it Freak-quently Asked Questions.  In our previous installment, Levitt talked about, among other things, the value of voting.  The economist's take?  Voting just isn't a rational way to spend your time and  energy.  Not surprisingly, quite a few of you objected pretty strenuously to Levitt's message.  I'm guessing today's program will upset just as many of you, if not more.  If I had to predict which answer is mostly likely to set you off--predicting the future by the way is impossible, but we human beings can't help ourselves.  That's actually the theme of an upcoming radio hour we're making now.  But anyway, if I had to predict which answer from today's episode is most provocative, I'd say it's when Levitt assesses the recent healthcare reform bill.  He also talks about whether college education is as valuable as it's made out to be.  And does increased policing in Brazilian slums actually help stop crime?  We sat down together in my office a couple of weeks ago.  Uh, Levitt, how do you feel about this prospect today?

LEVITT: Never been more ready!

DUBNER: Mmm, I like the confidence.  Confidence bordering on cocky.

LEVITT: You know me.

DUBNER: Alright, we’ll begin.  Levitt, here’s a question for you.  Something I’ve heard you talk about a lot.  Interestingly.  You’ve done some research yourself on gains to education.  So a reader named Jonathan Bennett asks, “Is college education no longer a factor, or even a disadvantage when it comes to employment?”  Levitt, what say you?

LEVITT: I think that never has anyone made a statement more false than Jonathan Bennett’s statement, uh, that education would be no help or a disadvantage in the modern economy.  So of all the topics that economists have studied, I would say one we are most certain about are the returns to education.  And the numbers that people have come up with over and over are that every extra year of education that you get will translate into an 8% increase in earnings over your lifetime.  So someone who graduated from college will earn about 30% more on average than someone who only graduated from high school.  And if anything, the returns to education have gotten larger over time.  They’re as big as they have ever been.  And I think it makes sense that the returns to education now are higher than they’ve ever been because of how the economy has changed.  It used to be that with a low education, you could get a good manufacturing job, lifetime employment.  But now with the Chinese competition for instance, almost all the manufacturing jobs are gone, because there are Chinese workers willing to work, who are able to do these jobs at wages that are one-fifth or one-tenth of what an American worker would demand to do it.  So, I tell you, I was in a taxicab a couple days ago, and this is a story that really exemplifies how the economy is changing.  Over the two-way radio, the dispatcher’s voice comes, and he says, “Gentlemen, I’m looking for someone to pick up one extra shift on the night shift, a new taxicab driver.  If you know someone, they need to have experience.  And I also need a college education.”  And I thought to myself, “If you need a college education to drive a cab in this country, what job don’t you need to have a college education for?”

DUBNER: Well let me ask you this.  How does an economist or anyone go about measuring—so the gains to education that you talked about.  When you talk about a relationship between an extra year of college, or graduating from college and future income, how do you know that you’re not just measuring that people who go to college are more motivated, smarter to start with, and how do you tease that out in the data?

LEVITT: Yeah, that’s a great question.  Because so much of what we do in Freakonomics, SuperFreakonomics, is all about distinguishing correlation from causality.  And what you worry about is the people who would have earned money already are the ones who get more education.  So the trick is finding what I would call an accidental experiment.  So what you need is a way in which two seemingly identical people, because of some quirk of nature or fate, one ends up getting much more education than the other.  So maybe the best example, though somewhat of an old one, comes from the Vietnam draft lottery.  So back in Vietnam, men were entered into this draft lottery.  And if you got a very low number, it meant you were likely to go to Vietnam.  If you got a very high number, it meant you were safe. There was a way however to avoid service, which was to go to college.  So what happened was, the men who were unlucky and got bad draft numbers, many more of them went to college than did the people who got high draft numbers.  Now they wouldn’t have gone to college otherwise.  They went only to avoid going to Vietnam.  So what the economists have done is they’ve compared the people who got kind of medium draft numbers.  So they weren’t sure if they’d be drafted or not, but in the end they ended up not being drafted.  But many of those men still went to college.  And they compared that group of people, who were identical in principle to the people who were lucky and got really high draft numbers.   And those high draft number people, they didn’t have to go to college to avoid Vietnam, so many fewer went to college.  And consequently, if you follow them through their lives, the people with the medium draft numbers, who didn’t go to Vietnam, but many more went to college, and you compare them to the people with the high draft numbers, who neither went to Vietnam nor went to college, and you see returns to education of those kinds of numbers I mentioned before.  About a 30% increase in earnings, by virtue of going to college versus stopping at high school.

DUBNER: So that’s pretty fascinating.  But also what’s interesting to me is that for these guys who got a really bad Vietnam draft number, that actually turned out to be a really good thing for the outcome of their lives, in that a lot of them went to college who might not otherwise have, and therefore resulted in a—I mean, it’s a very strange, unintended consequence of the Vietnam War draft, yeah?

LEVITT: That’s right.  They earned a lot more money.  Now, economists don’t always want to say just because you have more money, you had a better life.  Now these guys had to suffer through college.  These were guys who didn’t want to be in college, and maybe, just possibly, they would have been happier living a life where they earned less money and had those four years to go ride around, you know do hippie stuff or something like that.  So who knows if they’re really better off?   They certainly earned more money.

DUBNER: Coming up, Levitt shares his opinion on healthcare reform.  And it will not make his friends in the Obama administration very happy.  Also, a look at Brazilian policing.

[MUSIC]

[UNDERWRITING]

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

DUBNER: Let me, let me play you another one here.

LISTENER: Hi, my name is Tabby Lei.  I'm from Denver, Colorado.  I have a question for you.  What do you think of the healthcare reform passed in 2010?  Thank you.

LEVITT: Well, my friends in the Obama administration aren’t going to be very happy with me, but I really, I don’t think it solved any of the important problems that we’re facing with healthcare.  So virtually every economist will tell you that there were two things you needed to do to healthcare reform to materially improve the situation.  The first was to break the link between the provision of healthcare and employment.  And that is just an archaic element of our healthcare system, which really makes no sense, and yet because of tax subsidies, it’s the way most people get their healthcare, is through their employer.  It shouldn’t be.  There’s no good economic justification for it.  And yet, if anything, I think this healthcare reform bill actually strengthened that link.  So I think that’s very disappointing to economists in that regard.

DUBNER: Just explain why that’s a bad idea.

LEVITT: So people say, “Why doesn’t it  make sense to have healthcare tied to employment?”  Well, I think  I actually want to turn the question around and say, “Why in the world, if you’re starting from scratch, would you link it to employment?”  I think there’s no good reason.  I mean, for one thing, many people don’t work.  And so you’re left with this situation where there are people who work who get healthcare through their employer.  And there are people who don’t work, and they don’t have an employer, and so you have to have these dual systems.  There’s no intrinsic reason why your employer should provide your healthcare, other than the fact that we started doing it a long time ago and there are enormous tax subsidies to doing so.  It leads to what’s called job lock.  It’s difficult to change jobs.  And it leads to circumstances where we have to have these overlapping systems which are inefficient.  Why is your auto insurance not tied to your employer?  I mean, no one in their right mind would say, “Well, my automobile insurance should be tied to my employer.”  Well then, why would my healthcare insurance be tied to my employer?  It’s just, there’s no fundamental reason why it should be that way.

DUBNER: And what does it do to employers to make them have to be the people who dish out healthcare?  In other words, there are all these large firms that are supposed to be good at one thing.  Making software, making cars, or whatever.  But then also they need to devote an increasingly large share of their resources and their bandwidth to running an insurance program for their employees as well.

LEVITT: I think that’s exactly right.  That you would think that if you had firms whose specific jobs were to provide healthcare insurance, that they’d be better at it than having Frito-Lay or GM or whoever it is.  I mean, they’re good at making chips, and they’re good at making cars, but why should they be good at making healthcare?

DUBNER: So that’s one piece of why you didn’t like the healthcare reform.  Because it did nothing to weaken the link between employment and healthcare.  What’s the other reason?

LEVITT: An even bigger problem with healthcare today, which was not addressed at all in the reform bill, is that people aren’t paying for the services they get.  It’s virtually the only part of the economy where I can go out and get any service I want—cancer treatment, open heart surgery, have a wart removed, whatever it is—and I pay $3 for it or $5 for it or nothing, even if it costs $50,000, $100,000.  I mean, imagine if you had the same situation with automobiles.  Where I could show up at the car dealership and I could say, “I want the Mercedes for free.”  Well, people say, “You can’t have the Mercedes for free.  You have to pay $50,000 for it.”  You say, “Why not, I have an inalienable right to free healthcare.  Right?  Why don’t I have an inalienable right to a free Mercedes?”  And to me it just makes no sense.  That healthcare is just like any other good in the economy.  And because we aren’t charging people for it, what it costs to produce, people are inefficiently consuming it.  They’re making the wrong choices.  And you can tolerate that if it were a small part of the economy.  But now that healthcare is 15%, 20% of GDP, we have to start treating it like what it is, which is another good.  Now people hate to talk about this trade-off between health and life and money.  But the fact is that, if not today but sometime in the not-too-distant future, we’re going to have to make trade-offs, such as my grandmother is in a vegetative state, being kept alive by machines pumping her heart, and instead of the state paying for that, they’re gonna say, “Well, look.  You gotta pay for some of this.  You can either take the $150,000.  We’ll keep your grandmother alive.   And use it for that.  Or you can put your kids through college.  Your choice.”  And people are going to have to start making those tough choices.  And they won’t be pretty. And they won’t be fun or happy.  But it is just—you know, economics is the study of scarcity.  And in a world where healthcare becomes more and more costly, the scarcity is going to be more and more binding.  We’re going to have to make those tough choices that are imbued with this moral element.  But nonetheless, it’s an economic choice when you get down to it.

LISTENER: Hi, this is Ricardo Castro calling from São Paulo in Brazil.  At the end of 2010, Brazilian army and the Brazilian police went out into the slums to fight drug dealers.  They took a lot of weapons and drugs from them.  Some say they lost millions of dollars over a period of two days.  And what happens?  Should we expect crime to decrease because of all the police repression?  Or should we expect crime to actually increase, because drug lords are trying to refinance--robberies, a lot of crimes?

DUBNER: Best regards, Ricardo.  What do you say?

LEVITT: Actually, Ricardo, I think neither or your predictions will come true.  I think a third prediction will come true.  My perspective is that the drug dealers who are selling drugs in these favelas have a tremendous incentive to keep those areas safe.  Nobody wants to go buy drugs in a place where people are getting shot, or where they’re afraid of getting mugged.  And so far more than the police, who don’t really have that strong an incentive when you think about it to keep crime low, the drug dealers need law and order.  And so I actually think two things will happen when you crack down on the drug dealers.  Well, really three things.  First, sure, you make it a lot harder on the drug dealers to sell drugs.  So you will have that effect of reducing the number drugs that are sold.  My guess is, though, if you go back to these neighborhoods, you will find that the amount of crime will have gone up dramatically after the police come to them than before.  And that’s both because the drug dealers will no longer have the incentive to keep things clean and safe and protect the buyers, because they’ll no longer be selling the drugs there.  Number two, the violence that surrounds drug dealing is all about the property rights.  It’s about the drug dealers fighting with other drug dealers to find a place where they can sell their drugs.  If you make it impossible for these drug dealers to sell drugs in the favelas they’ve already established in, then they’re going to go find some other place to try to sell drugs, and that’s going to lead to conflict between gangs.  And I think there’ll actually be a spike of violence as they sort out trying to figure out who’s going to have the rights to sell drugs in the new place that they’re selling drugs in.  So I think in the short run definitely you’re going to see more crime rather than less crime associated with the police coming into these areas.  Even more so, because these are, remember are Brazilian police and Brazilian police are not well-known for their honesty and dedication to duty.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised based on what I know in talking to people who have studied Brazilian police, that indeed many of these police officers who are now guardians of favelas are quite familiar with these areas, because the standard job of many Brazilian police officers when they’re off duty is to work for the drug dealers in the favelas, serving as security guards.

DUBNER: That does it!  Our second installment of Freak-quently Asked Questions.  We'll probably do another one sometime.  Thanks to everyone who sent in questions, and sorry we could only get to a few of them.  Freakonomics Radio is a co-production of WNYC, American Public Media, and Dubner Productions.  Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes and you'll get the next episode in your sleep.  You can find more audio at FreakonomicsRadio.com, and as always, if you want to read more about the hidden side of everything, please visit our new, improved blog at Freakonomics.com.

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Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

 

COMMENTS: 43


  1. John Mulholland says:

    With regards to voting, that is why we have the Electoral College, though it has been misused.

    Utah also has a great caucus system. Neighborhoods elect delegates who then vote at convention. It works great.

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  2. James says:

    Sorry, but in my experience your dating advice doesn’t pan out, or at least not unless you define successful as “got as much money as Hugh Hefner”. I had a lot more luck getting dates as a starving college student than I do as a reasonably successful professional, some decades later. (And unlike most of my contemporaries, I still have hair, and at least four out of the six-pack abs.) So while success may be valued for its own sake, when it comes to dating, carpe diem!

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  3. AaronS says:

    Some thoughts….

    One of the things that attracted me to my wife was the fact that she pointed out a $189 ring in the Sears catalog. That kind of sealed the deal for me–she wasn’t a gold digger. I went out and bought her a much, much more expensive ring. I didn’t want a keeper to get away.

    Indeed, you can find plenty of “dates” if you are successful. But just how much do you think Hugh Hefner’s fiancee REALLY loves him? I’d rather find love than find dates–and you would likely be somewhat suspicious of someone who, never giving you the time of day before, is now ready to be your spouse, now that you’ve won the lottery, or the Nobel Prize, or what have you.

    Success is so much sweeter when the woman by your side believed in you long before accolades came your way. She’s the real deal.

    Now, about voting…. You are absolutely right, no doubt, that MY vote doesn’t matter. But consider what happens if everyone who was going to vote decided that their vote didn’t matter.

    Indeed, none of us get to choose our representatives by ourselves. Even if a person wins by a single vote, that one vote didn’t elect him/her. It was that vote AND the many others that came before it.

    I vote for several reasons:

    1) I’d be very upset if they took the right away from me because I didn’t appear to ever use it.

    2) I like to bellyache about things, so I feel that I have to vote in order to be well justified in either nagging my representative or complaining about the one you elected–ha!

    3) Some things you do just out of raw principle. This is not about me saving time, obtaining greater efficiency, or the such. It’s about me getting the right to do what millions of people would give their blood to do–and what our forefathers supposedly fought the Revolutionary War over–namely, “no taxation without representation.”

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  4. Eric M. Jones says:

    Levitt is the smart one? “…you’ll get dates once you have success…”

    Your belief in any rational theory applied to human mating practices is wildly misplaced. I could tell you stories….oy….

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  5. Jacques says:

    I find the voting issue interesting. Yes, as one vote, I cannot influence anything. But if every potential voter stayed home instead of voting, then we would probably have a dictatorship, or more likely in this country, a theocracy. It is the same for most of us in our daily life: The work we do contributes little to the economy but if nobody worked, well we all know what would happen. I think that some smart economists should ponder this philosophical point.

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    • Rhett says:

      Jacques, I don’t think the alternative is that no one would vote at all and leave us with a dictatorship. I think the point is that, in current society, so many millions vote that your vote (or my vote) really doesn’t mean a whole lot, and therefore you have a diminished return on your time and effort. Now, say MOST other people stopped voting, and maybe there were only a few thousand voters – then you’re vote is much more significant! You’re getting a greater return, and you’re vote is worth exponentially more.

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  6. luosha says:

    i wonder if the “you’ll get more dates when you’re successful” applies to women as well to men.

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    • Rhett says:

      That’s funny. I think not, though. They were born successful by having something that men want. Instead of making a product that people want, a la Apple, they already have it. Men will put up with a lot for the sake of a woman. The only thing I have that my wife really wants is my ability to open jars!

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  7. joe average says:

    Well, I think votes DO count.

    Votes count because if the election is not close, the election doesn’t make it to the courts.

    So you should vote so that the election results are really close.

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  8. Greg M. Johnson says:

    Regarding your comment on voting, I cannot imagine a more unthoughtful and wrong-headed analysis.

    My vote may make little difference on whether candidate X or Y wins the election. But the reason to vote is exactly the same reason as whether to perform another “charitable act” that I also heard discussed in a podcast today. That act had to do with plastic bags. Sea turtles are choking & dying on plastic bags which are adrift in oceans, because they mistake the bags for jellyfish. It turns out that plastic bags aren’t as digestible as jellyfish, and it blocks their intestines.

    Now if I take one plastic bag and go throw it in the street in front of my house, the chances are infitesimally small that it will get to the ocean. (I’m upstate!) Multiply that by the chances of bags making it into the ocean running across sea turtles, and you have a no-brainer. My act of tossing a bag has no effect. Yet sea turtles are dying in an epidemic, because millions of people are not careful.

    Same with elections. Setting aside primary elections, which are both more apt to have close votes and involve outright dangerous kooks, you didn’t consider the issue of mandate. A President wins by 50.1% or 65% will behave very differently in office– they may feel a divine mandate to go start a war that kills hundreds of thousands of people.

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    • Matt M says:

      Apparently even the Presidents “elected” with 47.9% may feel this divine mandate to start wars…. even when the “losing” candidate gets 48.4% of the vote.

      Being a 19 yo at the time (which only partially excuses it) I really bought in to this it won’t make a difference in NY meme …. that will be the last time I make that mistake. Though I am not diluted enough to think it would have changed anything, it is the question of one’s right to complain/care if they did not participate… it’s a matter of principle.

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  9. Simcha says:

    There IS a rational reason to vote:

    If everyone else is rational, they will not show up to vote because their vote does not count. Then, the election totally hinges on my – THE ONLY ONE – vote. Furthermore, the elected official will be totally beholden to my influence. I can establish a tax for everyone outside my address. Create tax breaks just for me. The potential payoff is so huge, it is worth going.

    Of course, this works until I see other people voting. But, luckily, it is rational for me to vote absentee to minimize the chance that an earthquake or snowstorm will prevent me from voting on that day.

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  10. Chang says:

    Interesting that one should vote for a politican’s term of a few years based on principle but search for a lifetime’s husband or wife based on avarice.

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  11. Eugene says:

    Yeah, this wasn’t the most insightful or illuminating chat. For some reason I considered these two guys a lot more shrewd and interesting.

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  12. Thomas Cook says:

    If, in the course of your voting career, the standard measurement error is less than your vote, or even the vote of everyone on your block, you’re probably not voting for anything bigger than class president.

    If you want to affect policies and not get swept away in the statistical tidal currents, trying lobbying instead of voting.

    If you want that “warm-glow” (an official term in public-good economics) effect, then by all means vote.

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  13. Adam says:

    Your dating advise is terrible. Wait until you are successful to date because you will have a more target rich environment!

    First of all many folks are never “sucessful”, second you really don’t want to spend you 20′s celibate, third all the best couples I know paired up well before there fortunes were known. There is something more honest in bounding yourself to someone for better or worse, not just successful.

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  14. Peter Pappas says:

    Here’s another Question: What’s the opportunity cost of vengeance?

    Answer: Read my post “What Happens as the Cost of Hating Pigs Approaches Zero?” http://bit.ly/fPkcSZ

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  15. Jacob says:

    The voting discussion confuses the prior and posterior probability of a vote “counting”. Once the result is known, and crucially just how many people voted, one can say with confidence that a single vote was just one among many, and did not affect the outcome. However, prior to voting, there is a chance that one might be the only person to vote (particularly if everyone believed their votes did not count!) or that one might be part of a narrowly victorious bloc. As long as you have a stake in the outcome and that chance exists, no matter how small it may be, voting is better than not voting.

    Another way to look at this would be to take the results of a landslide where, say, one candidate wins 70 million to 30 million. It is incorrect to say that one vote did not change the outcome; rather, it contributed 1/20 millionth of the result!

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  16. Becky says:

    This observation about dating clearly applies to men much more than women. Perhaps you should acknowledge that? Otherwise, it seems like you live in a world where only the man’s perspective counts.

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  17. Antonio says:

    The unemployment rate in Italy is lower than in the US, and less than half the Spanish one
    Now you know it..

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  18. Clancy says:

    The benefit of voting is that politicians only pander to voters.
    My friend says she doesn’t vote for the reason Levitt explains. I said, “but look at it this way: You don’t vote, along with a lot of people your age, and what do you get from the government? At best, a reasonable rate on your student loans. Look at your grandma: She and her friends have voted in every single election since nineteen dicketty-two, and what does she get? All her heathcare for free, AND the government sends her a check every month just for beind OLD!”
    Thats why voting matters.

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  19. Miranda says:

    The only reason to vote is if the margin of victory is likely to be a single vote? This seems like an absurdly narrow view. What about the strong incentives of the many people whose careers are devoted to finding ways to get you to want to vote? If, as you say, voting is not a rational action, then political strategists will target their appeals only to irrational voters. The representatives elected by these irrational voters are unlikely to implement policies in line with the views of all the rational non-voters. So, in order to have rational government, we must all behave irrationally.

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  20. Ruth says:

    Why do people who analyze the value of voting always focus on large national elections? When I was growing up, I saw local elections decided by a handful of votes.

    Those elections convinced me of the value of an individual vote. I vote on principle now, because I saw cases where a few votes made a difference. I make it a point to vote in primaries and local elections because I think my votes are more influential in those contests.

    What I don’t understand is why people whose votes could make a difference in state and local elections ignore those elections and only go to the polls in the U.S. to vote for president.

    To me, the parallel in this is research about people most likely to say, help return a wallet dropped on the street or assist a lost child in the city. There were some studies that showed people with rural backgrounds were more likely to intervene than people who had lived all their lives in the city. Maybe voter education programs should focus on showing teenagers how individual votes matter at the lowest levels of government.

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  21. John says:

    It does matter if you vote.

    One reason is that conclusions are drawn based on your existence in the census and the votes that were tallied in your district. You fit various profiles in the census data and not voting tells the people who run for office something. Exit polling provides a statistical estimate of what the people that did vote were like, in terms of the census data. Inferences are made about the rest.

    Another reason to vote is that the community you live in learns how many people voted. And not voting can become contagious, or it might encourage a group of people you disagree with to run for office. The best way to protect your interests is to vote. The count means something, more than just who wins the election.

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  22. Teddy Ballgame says:

    Levitt doesn’t know and doesn’t care who is Congressional representative is?

    Voting is a waste of time?

    Yea, all those people who devoted their lives [and many who lost their lives] to gaining the right to vote – suckers.

    This is the kind of thinking that makes me embarrassed to be part of the economics profession.

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  23. Phillip says:

    Honestly, these answers have the shape and form of reasonableness, but are simply off target. . It’s incredible but not surprising that these hyper-educated guys would produce such wrong-headed responses. Let’s explore.

    - ‘Focus on career success and dating success will follow.’ I’m sorry, but this could only come from someone who has met with so much consternation in the romance department that he has no choice but to focus on his career. The lasting marriages of extremely successful people have come *before* they were rock stars – just look at Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Mark Zuckerberg. Contrast that with the trophy wives and broken homes of countless hedge fund managers, movie stars, and musicians. Before you’ve made it big is in fact the best time to find someone who appreciates the real person you are, not your achievement.

    - ‘Your vote doesn’t matter, and in fact it’s a waste of time.’ Again, they totally miss the point here. I won’t argue that an individual vote will tip the scales, but it’s precisely the process of learning about the issues and getting to know the candidates that produces an informed electorate and allows for a stable, well-functioning democracy. Knowing what issues are on the ballot is an essential part of being an engaged citizen and the only way to ensure an honest government.

    - They are probably right that institutions are the underlying cause of national economic identities, but that does not mean that the people themselves don’t carry these characteristics. By analogy, your parents are the greatest influence on your personality, but in the end it’s you not them who embodies those traits.

    - Career advice. Last time I checked, being an economist was an incredibly competitive and (often) difficult profession!

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  24. Ken Hardy says:

    I have just listened to the first few minutes (all I could stomach) of Freakanomics FAQ No. 1 and am astonished by the oblivious hatefulness and callousness of some of the views expressed. Yet, while repulsive, Mr. Leavitt’s words, I know, are unquestionably truthful. What they reveal about the current state of affairs makes me more sorrowful than indignant. Regardless, I know I’ll not rest until I have conveyed my sentiment.

    Mr. Leavitt, you give the advice, so precious and profound in your eyes, to your students about choosing a career, AND you hold the views you express, with such casual arrogance, about voting both for one very important reason. You recognize that in this country you live safely held in the bosom of a class of unaccountable elites who direct our course with neither the consent of the vast majority of the populace nor any concern for their welfare other than how it serves them and sustains the system. You know that, unless you REALLY work hard to screw up, that there will always be a comfortable place for you in the world and that you are virtually immune from the vagaries of American politics, foreign policy, and economy and all the suffering their vast fluctuations and failings bring upon most of your countrymen.

    You are correct. Why would you care who gets elected and what they do? As far as you and your ilk are concerned, Pia Zadora could be crowned Empress of America and invade Brazil tomorrow, and it would scarcely matter at all to your prosperity and security. You’ll never lose a son or brother in some ridiculous foreign adventure we might have been spared if an election had different results. Your vaunted vocation will never be threatened by the vain-glorious stupidity of men and women like your former students who, with complete impunity, run amok with the world’s finances driven ONLY by self-interest and a desire to amuse themselves. You know how very certain this all is, and could not be bothered by a bit of it. That makes you hateful, fiendish, and abhorrent.

    Enjoy it while it lasts.

    Ken Hardy
    Kinston, NC

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  25. Alexander Polsky says:

    The observations about voting are premised on unstated and incorrect assumption:that the only value derived from voting is influencing the outcome of the election.

    As it happens, that’s not why we vote. We vote because the participation of our citizens in the process signifies an agreement and confers a legitimacy on the outcome.

    In fact, one can argue that with elections, who wins is actually less important for society than that the process obtain the adherence of the governed to abide by the outcome. Choosing not to participate in the process because of the minimal cost involved is a signal of disengagement from the national compact . . . and is not benign.

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  26. Ken Mayer says:

    I was looking forward to the answer to the question “Which one of you is smarter?” because I thought that the answer would be couched in economic analysis.

    It seems that cash would be one metric. How much did Levitt’s income rise after his collaboration with Dubner began? How much did Dubner’s rise? I’m sure there are a myriad of ways to fine tune the analysis. How much are their respective speaking fees? If one were to argue that Dubner is a publicist/agent of Levitt’s ideas, if he is getting more than 10% of the collaboration, then qua agent he’s getting the better deal. Does that make him smarter? I note that Levitt’s answer betrayed the truth that economists in their own lives tend not to make or value money but rather scholarly reputation. (Or tend not to be good at managing their own money). His answer was that academic economists RESPECT Dubner’s views, therefore Dubner is smart QED. How can academic respect be quantitatively measured?

    In general, I think this silly question could lead to some interesting comments about the economics of intelligence.

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  27. Greg Jeffreys says:

    Getting older, it’s interesting to see how ‘economics’ in some quarters has effectively redefined itself as ‘omniscience, using statistics’. I like the way this movement effectively adopts what phenomenologists (or one version thereof) would attempt to do with the notion that every observation is subjective and to tries to observe phenomena on that basis. Phenomenology turned out to be rather a fad. Folk asked: ‘OK, but what do you actually do with this?’, something one starts to question about this mini-industry.

    For me, it means that some work is really tight and of benefit. The problem is when you start to believe your own press and then one witnesses, for example, the toe curling brown-nosing of the alleged patent trolls of Seattle in the recent Superfreakonomics book. An interesting contrast with the recent ‘This American Life’ feature. Who is right? Who knows, but it was a flabby and unselfcritical finish to a book with some great stuff in it. Which brings me to my comment on this podcast.

    I’ve been working through the podcasts – a recent discovery – with overall pleasure. But the assertions and recommendations about whether to vote somehow encapsulate the problems. Of course, this flavour of economics does not pretend to judge what is right or wrong; like the law it’s an amoral (NOT immoral) exercise. But to use one observation about voter effectiveness to recommend folk not to vote is a non-sequitur, a failure of induction, a move to the immoral. Honestly, this is really offensive. It’s effectively saying that ‘voting is for the little people’. The individual still has personal responsibilities and such longeurs overstep the mark beyond which affected omniscience is entitled to take itself.

    You guys have worked up to a position of power. What are the responsibilities of a Freakonomic?

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  28. Vikram says:

    Hi Steven,
    In this day and age of trigger happy texting and messaging, getting people to vote and twitter about it will be easy, if one could build a application for voting based on which local consensus could be driven for an economic project. Of course, the states and country would follow suit in a few years. I find it incredibly inane that we have not yet built something like this – when technology for it is so wide spread.

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  29. Dale Eltoft says:

    I listen to a lot of podcasts (yours is the best :- ) and radio shows on economics and I’m disturbed at the frequent statement that the government JUST prints money. This is usually said in a critical way as if it were some kind of a cheat. It’s my understanding that the government borrows money hence the national debt. This is no more printing money than me using a credit card. Then there’s the Federal Reserve which seems to be in a grey area. Maybe government, maybe not. It apparently does print money with which it buys the government’s bonds or it loans money to banks who then buy the bonds. Presumably when the bonds mature or are sold or the bank loans are repaid, the Fed will get the “printed money” back and be able to unprint it. How is this a bad thing? Isn’t it really the rate of interest that matters?? Wouldn’t our economy suffer if there was no elasticity in the money supply??

    So what’s the story? Is it good, bad or complicated?

    Here’s a related question. If the Fed is loaning money at 0.01% and the Treasury is selling bonds that pay 3% or more. Couldn’t we reduce the deficit by having the IRS borrow from the Fed to buy bonds and then use the difference in interest as revenue?

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  30. Dale Eltoft says:

    Regards the value of a vote:
    Perhaps the question is like looking at a tree and failing to see the forest.

    First maybe we should also consider the value of political contributions $$$. I’ve often felt that the real election happens when they count the money. There are also other less obvious determining factors that are only apparent to the Power Brokers.

    Second maybe we need to look at other votes. For example, I’ve heard news stories about how the people like the Koch brothers & Art Pope are financing state candidates to gain the power to gerrymander districts to bias national elections.

    If voters were aware that outcomes were being decided far from and long before the elections, they might be able to take action to really have and effect. There must be some economic mechanism that parallels this complexity.

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  31. Dale Eltoft says:

    Here’s another thing I often hear when people speak about the national debt. They refer to the Treasure bonds held by China et al as the US being “beholding to them” or they say “what if they demand repayment”. I believe there needs to be an FAQ that explains the difference between a loan and a bond pointing out that 1) a bond holder cannot demand repayment at any time, 2) that there is no collateral involved so the don’t “own” us and 3) that bonds are traded in a market so China is free to sell them at any time.

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  32. Jennifer Martin says:

    I’m wondering what the unintended consequences will be to the “kid-glove” treatment of our children these days. We’ve had no winners and no losers in youth sports for a while now, but now it’s gotten even softer. At my son’s elementary school, the children can’t play regular tag anymore because they can’t physically touch the other kids during play, for fear of making them fall on the blacktop. They can’t run out excitedly at recess time anymore, for fear that they might trip themselves or someone else in their excitement. They can’t use any words that sound even close to derogatory about anything at all – people or objects.

    “That was a dumb movie.”
    “I can’t find my stupid backpack.”
    “That game is dumb.”
    “I hate (anything).”

    These are all forbidden statements. I can understand not calling people dumb or stupid, but outlawing the words altogether? How are kids supposed to express a strong opinion? I say that objects are “stupid” when I am annoyed with them on a regular basis (“This stupid remote isn’t working!”). Am I harming someone when I say that?

    What are we teaching our kids about their emotional and physical fragility and how do you think it might affect them in the long run?

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  33. Dag Blakstad says:

    If there are such things as souls, what happens when we share our personal beliefs and thoughts with others? If, say, we transfer our values (soul) to other by interacting and convincing others, how does this relate to publishing?

    Now I’m closing in on my core question. As I pose you this question I’m publishing a bit of my self. If bits of me is used to make money for you, have I sold part of my soul? I think this is a moral question we need to ask now when our personal information has become a product in social media. ‘You’ are Facebook’s/Google’s etc product.

    I think sharing is a generally a good thing, but there are obviously moral issues we are currently unconscious of. I would be happy if there was episode of freakonomics on the topic of morals of sharing and using personal information in business purposes. As the Soul Posession episode brought into light, should or can everything be put up for sale?

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  34. Jay says:

    What is the cost of life?

    As a military person, I know all too well the costs of life, but one part the military is particular blind is dealing with sunk cost when it comes to people’s lives. Loss of live is an obvious emotional situation and this these emotions that hinder about ability to see the bigger picture. Cries of not pulling out of an operation because of the lives we’ve lost is some simple explanation. The costs can be applied to the cost of insurance, health care, abortion and many aspects of modern life.

    I’d like to hear what the Steves’ think about it.

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  35. Grant Sutton says:

    I am very curious about the economics of ethics, and would like to hear a podcast devoted to the subject of recalls, more in depth than the mouse in the salad incident. I would also like to hear about stories of how societies incentives ethics. The economic effect of recalls would also be interesting.

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  36. Gustavo C says:

    I quit my job a couple of years ago and I had some money from my 401-K. I moved this to a financial company (Fidelity), but now I have some debt and not currently a 401-K program. Can I use this money to pay my debts? Or I can’t touch it until I retire?

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  37. Glenn says:

    There is a lot of talk about Patent Trolls. Now I’m seeing good videos like Kirby Ferguson’s https://vimeo.com/36881035 Remix 4. He argues that people are suffering because of the current patent structure.

    Is there data to support or refute the patent craziness?

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  38. Chuck says:

    For most of the past 75 years, the conventional wisdom is that owning a home is a better economic choice than renting. I’m starting to hear some different views of this, now that the housing market is struggling.

    What’s the real deal here? Should I sell, and then rent?

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  39. Drew says:

    I’ve heard many economists claim they don’t vote because no individual vote matters, but I think the logic is flawed. Certainly, your individual vote counts for very little, but consider the problem from a statistical perspective: people who choose not to vote because they recognize that their vote counts for next to nothing are selectively removing themselves from an otherwise pseudorandom sample of the eligible voters, which reduces the heteroskedasticity of the sample, increasing the correlation of error factors. At best, this results in an increased margin of error and at worst, it can invalidate the results of the sample.

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  40. Ryan bell says:

    Is Americas love affair with global warming impacting our (the USA) performance at the Winter Olympics?

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