The Ten Commandments of The American Religion

This is a cross-post from James Altucher‘s blog Altucher Confidential. His previous appearances on the Freakonomics blog can be found here.

If I stood in the center of Times Square and said something like “Moses didn’t really part the Red Sea,” or “Jesus never existed,” people would probably keep walking around me, ignoring what I said.

But if I stood there and said, “Going to college is the worst sin you can force your kids to commit,” or “You should never vote again,” or "Never own a home," people would probably stop, and maybe I‘d lynched. But I would’ve at least gotten their attention. How? By knocking down a few of the basic tenets of what I call the American Religion.

It’s a fickle and false religion, used to replace the ideologies we (a country of immigrants) escaped. Random high priests lurk all over the Internet, ready to pounce. Below are the Ten Commandments of the American Religion, as I see them. If you think there are more, list them in the comments.

The below is an excerpt from my just released book, I Was Blind But Now I Can See.

The 21st Century Another American Century? Don't Bet on It

In conjunction with our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, "The Folly of Prediction," I decided to reach out to a former professor of mine, Raymond Horton, whose modern political economy class is a student favorite at Columbia Business School. I wanted to know what Horton thought the worst prediction ever was, particularly regarding the intersection of politics and economics. He immediately pointed to a Foreign Affairs essay written by Mortimer Zuckerman in 1998, in which Zuckerman boldly lays out the case that, like the 20th century, the 21st will also be marked by American dominance.

We're barely a decade into the new century, so you may think it's too early to pass judgment on Zuckerman's prediction. But given the way things have played out over the last several years, it does look to be on shaky ground. At least that's the opinion of Ray Horton.

Once you've finished reading Horton's essay, we'd love to hear what you think count as some of the worst predictions ever.

Nazis, Sunken Ships, and a 67 Year-Old Game of Telephone

This is a guest post by Jeff Mosenkis, a freelance producer with Freakonomics Radio who holds a Ph.D. in psychology and comparative human development.

Nazis, Sunken Ships, And a 60 Year-Old Game of Telephone
By Jeff Mosenkis

Did you hear the one about the two statisticians who go deer hunting? The first one misses his shot ten feet to the right of the deer; the second one misses ten feet to the left of the deer. They then high five each other and shout “Got him!”

While the quantitative method might not work for hunting, it apparently does for finding sunken warships. NPR’s Alix Spiegel reported this remarkable story about two Australian cognitive psychologists who used a statistical distribution to find two sunken World War II ships, 67 years after they were lost.

On the evening of November 19, 1941, the HMAS Sydney was off the coast of Western Australia when it exchanged fire with the German HSK Kormoran, and sunk with all 645 crewmen aboard. It was a national tragedy, particularly because nobody knew exactly what happened to the ship and why it sunk. The German crew scuttled their damaged ship, and 317 surviving German sailors were picked up in lifeboats at sea or on shore and interrogated.

Taking Risks to Improve Government: Kenya and Georgia

McKinsey is out with a new report on government innovation in Kenya and the Republic of Georgia. It's basically the story of how developing countries can harness technology to circumvent entrenched bureaucracy and make government both cheaper and more efficient.

Here are both cases in a nutshell, with a couple snippets from each:

Kenya:

Challenge: Nearly 40% of Kenyans live on less than $2 a day, and corruption is still cited as an ongoing challenge for citizens and businesses. The World Bank has reported, however, that if Kenya can sustain its recent growth rate, it's on track to become a lower-middle-income country in the next decade. And a new constitution establishes the citizen’s right to access government information—a right that must now be implemented.

Nation of Texters: A Third of People Prefer a Text to Talking

A new poll from the Pew Research Center asked Americans about how they use their phone, and in particular, their phone's non-voice features. They got predictable but still staggering results about sending and receiving text messages, especially from the younger demographic. The summary states:

Some 83% of American adults own cell phones and three-quarters of them (73%) send and receive text messages. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project asked those texters in a survey how they prefer to be contacted on their cell phone and 31% said they preferred texts to talking on the phone, while 53% said they preferred a voice call to a text message. Another 14% said the contact method they prefer depends on the situation.

What's the Median Income for a Fashion Model in the U.S.?

Take a wild guess: How much do you think fashion models make? It's one of those professions that unless you know someone, or work in the biz, there's not a lot of information out there to have a good view into. Judging by models' perceived glamour and high society status, not to mention the cut-throat competition they deal with, you might think it's a lot. I think I did. Which is why this line from a TNR review of the new book Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model struck me as amazing:

The median income across America in 2009 for a model was $27,330—income that includes no benefits.

The book is by Ashley Mears, a former fashion model and current Boston University sociologist.

Sperm Bank Rejecting Redheads

A recent story in the NY Daily News reported that Cryos International, one of the world's largest sperm banks, is refusing to accept donations from redheaded men.

Apparently, this is a result of a sharp increase in supply that the company needs to reduce before more donations are accepted. Like most temporary surpluses, this one will be removed, in this case probably not by the price system (although one can imagine that potential recipients, hearing of the surplus and being indifferent about their donor’s hair color, might offer Cryos a below-market price).

More likely, Cryos’ refusal to accept any more supply will cause the surplus to disappear, so that redheads’ donations will soon be accepted again.