Are We Ready to Legalize Drugs? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: Neeta Lind)

(Photo: Neeta Lind)

Our latest podcast is called “Are We Ready to Legalize Drugs? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player in the post. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) Once again, Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt take questions from you, our readers and listeners. 

In this installment, Joseph Fogan wants to know about the hidden costs of the war on drugs. The latest Gallup poll shows that 58 percent of Americans favor marijuana legalization (compared to just 12 percent in 1969). Are we really ready to legalize drugs in more than just a few states? And if the answer is yes, what will police do all day? Here’s what Levitt had to say:

We know there are a lot more police officers in places with more crime. So if there was no crime to deal with, there wouldn’t be many police officers. I mean, if you think about firefighters — talk about putting yourself out of a job, there aren’t any fires anymore. I don’t know what firefighters do all day. You could imagine that if all the crime went away, the police would end up looking a lot more like firefighters than they would like police officers. And we just wouldn’t need that many of them around.

This episode also features pitches from not one, but two listeners with ideas for how to help the ailing United States Postal Service; a discussion about whether putting video cameras in classrooms might improve low-performing schools; and we doff our caps to listener Ryan Harris, who asks “why don’t people wear hats anymore?”

The great thing about our FAQs (you can listen to earlier episodes here, here, here, here, here and here) is that we never really know what  Levitt will say; he has some truly unusual ideas. And thanks to all of you for all the good questions – keep them coming!

Audio Transcript

[MUSIC: Tallboy 7, “Robot Lover”]


Stephen DUBNER: Steve Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He’s an economist at the University of Chicago. One of the most unusual things about Levitt is that he doesn’t really care what anybody else thinks about his ideas … for better or worse:


Steven LEVITT: The easiest way to differentiate an economist from almost anyone else in society is to test them with repugnant ideas. Because economists are pretty much immune to repugnance.


LEVITT: It’s fun, your life will love you more if you go 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.


LEVITT: Mostly I’m just lazy.  You know, I could be investing in the kids or I could be, you know, indulging my own, you know, hobbies.


DUBNER: Let’s just watch TV instead.


LEVITT: Exactly.


LEVITT I’m not one of those people who really hates fat people, I know there are people who hate fat people. But I don’t really mind fat people.


DUBNER: So what will Levitt say in this week’s installment of Freak-quently Asked Questions?  


LEVITT: I never know what you’re going to put on the radio.




[MUSIC: The Wintermarket, “Durian Milkshake” (from: The Ballad of Artie Fufkin)]


ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.


DUBNER: Every now and again, Steve Levitt and I ask you to send us some question and then we try to answer them in this podcast. It’s called FREAK-quently Asked Questions.


DUBNER: Hey, so Levitt you ready to go?


LEVITT: Absolutely. For sure.


DUBNER: Do you have a cold beverage?


LEVITT: I have a warm one. That will do for me though.


DUBNER: Alright, let’s start with this. Uh, Levitt, here’s a question from someone named Matt Hayashi. “I’m curious to know what solutions would emerge if we took a poor performing junior high classroom, perhaps one classified as hopeless in the inner of some city, and put four cameras shooting from each corner and streamed the video over the internet. Would the students get a better education, would performance improve, would the students grow up and contribute positively to society…This could be fundamentally good for the countries by addressing the problems with public education of children.” I’m fascinated by this idea. I can’t imagine how many lawyers you’d have to talk to before you could get even one camera in the room. But I’m curious to know. It brings up some notions that we talked about before. For instance, the power of scrutiny, and not only on the kids in the classroom, but the teachers too. So I’m curious to know what you think about this idea and what might happen?


LEVITT: I’ll tell you it’s a different idea. I like it because there are so many ideas about what to do about public education, and this is not one that I’ve heard before. And I think scrutiny can affect people’s behavior. Now, just playing devil’s advocate, I’d say that if you were to put four streaming cameras into, let’s just say you start with one inner city school but then say it works out pretty well, so now you have it in a 1,000 or 100,000 inner city classrooms, the problem is no one’s going to watch. I mean, what could be more boring than watching someone get taught eighth grade civics or something like that. So I’m not sure there actually would be any scrutiny.


DUBNER: Well it might just be like the surveillance camera at the Seven Eleven. You only watch when something drastic happens. Let’s not assume that it needs a real audience, but if somebody totally blows up or does something amazing then there’s the possibility that people can can see it.


LEVITT: Absolutely. There’s this idea of deterring something or encouraging people, but I just think that the occasional blowups which occur are not what is fundamentally getting in the way of the students learning. What the reader suggests is somehow it’s going to transform the daily activities in the room. And my hunch is that you could start, when you first start, we know from what people call the Hawthorne Effect that when you start watching people they behave differently. But I think over time if you knew that nobody was actually watching you and that the video was rolling but nobody ever looked at it, I mean…Think about the parallel that we have, which is reality TV. So people get on these reality TV shows, and I’m sure for the first hour or two that the camera is on them they act very stale and serious and stuff. And then you can tell by the…Very quickly they act in outrageous ways that you say to yourself how could they act that way knowing it’s on TV. And I think you just get used to stuff. So even though these people know what they’re doing is being put on national TV, they very quickly just act the way they normally act in front of the camera. And I think that’s what would probably happen if you put a camera on one of these inner-city classrooms.


DUBNER: Yeah, okay, I mean, look, who am I to disagree with you, or challenge that, but I also just am curious, one thing that happens in a classroom is the dynamic between the students and the teacher, and the students and themselves and so on. And I’m just curious to think how that dynamic might be altered just be knowing that it’s not just them in the classroom, and that theoretically, I don’t know, maybe it’s the teacher who’s much more affected. Maybe it’s the teacher who knows that video can be accessed by his or her superiors at any point down the road, or peers. So look, at the very least it would be fun experiment to try, wouldn’t it, with a camera in a classroom to see what the feeling is?


LEVITT: Oh absolutely. I’m all in favor of any kind of experiment like that. It could be good. In some sense it has been done, it just hasn’t been done in this setting. A lot of daycare and nursery schools have streaming video of the classrooms I think because parents of that age are more nervous about how their kids might be treated or how their kids might react. So you could actually before running this experiment, it might be interesting to look and see whether anything changed in terms of teacher behavior in that other setting. I mean, we didn’t talk about it before, but maybe the one group that would possibly watch would be parents. I mean I would watch my 13-year-olds and see what they were doing in class and read them the riot act if they weren’t paying attention, or complain if their teachers...So maybe that’s actually the one audience that could be useful. I certainly believe that the more you get parents involved in schools the better. There’s tons of evidence that we’ve talked about that having good parents is at least as important as having good schools. And so I like the idea. I like the idea.


[MUSIC: Spencer Garn, “Solar Gazer”]


DUBNER: Okay Levitt, here’s the next one: Joseph Fogan writes, “As resident of the Buffalo, New York area, I recently saw and read an article about a local drug trafficker. As a result, I was wondering what the hidden costs of the war on drugs may be. I was wondering if team Freakonomics has ever done a study, report on this, or if they’d be interested? I think it poses a lot of interesting legal and moral questions.” So Levitt, we’ve talked and even I guess written about in the past, drugs is a big topic. Why don’t you start? When you think of drug legalization, how do you start to frame that argument in your head?


LEVITT: So I have thought a lot about the war on drugs. And it’s a great question to philosophize on I think, because...most people approach it from a more moral or philosophical point of view, of should drugs be legal? The libertarian perspective says maybe drugs should just be legal, maybe people should be able to do whatever they want. That’s what Milton Friedman thought. Other people think it’s immoral, there’s something wrong with drugs. But you know, that’s not the Freakonomics way. The Freakonomics way is to actually look at the data. And I do have a paper with Roland Fryer and a former student of mine, Paul Heaton, and Kevin Murphy. And we set out to look at the crack epidemic and the costs of the crack epidemic from a purely practical perspective. How bad was it? Do the places that had a lot of crack, did really bad things happen there, and why? And it was really interesting; it was really one of the most surprising results. Because  almost all of the big costs that we saw had to do not with the consumption of crack itself. Consumption of crack had some negative effects, but they weren’t great. The really big social costs had to do with the prohibition of the legality of crack. And so it was the case that the greatest costs we saw were the violence related to the fighting for property rights, and the imprisonment of people. And it was interesting because it doesn’t say that legalization is necessarily a good thing. That’s a big jump to have. But it says that in a regime where drugs are highly illegal, hard drugs like cocaine, in the U.S., the real costs that we feel then are the costs of the prohibition, not the costs of the use, because the prohibition is reasonably effective at lowering the use. Now what would happen if we got rid of the prohibition and let anybody and everybody use crack cocaine? I think that wouldn’t be a great outcome either.


DUBNER: And you say that, and you say that because the nature of crack is destructive, more so than say marijuana, or no?


LEVITT: Absolutely. So crack cocaine is a really devilish drug because it gives you such an intense high for such a short period of time that your desire is just to get high over and over and over. It’s highly addictive, and it’s really hard to function when you’re a crack addict. But what it makes me think is that this experimentation we’re doing now with policy towards drugs like marijuana, and potentially it would be expanded over time is a good idea. Because I think when it comes to marijuana, the social costs of the prohibition of marijuana are just really low. Very few people in the United States are being killed over marijuana. The gangs are not making their money off marijuana. Marijuana in some very real sense is too cheap. It’s too easy to grow yourself and so it isn’t the source of all of the ills that come with prohibition. And so, so the gains of legalizing marijuana for society are much smaller than the gains would be to legalizing cocaine if you could control how the outcome came.


DUBNER: So let me ask you this, whenever I hear a police department or some organization representing law enforcement talk against legalizing marijuana, the skeptic in me says oh well that’s because prosecuting and pursuing marijuana is a big part of police work and if it were decriminalized then the police would get unfunded. Is that a ridiculous thought to have?


LEVITT: No, I like the…We always think about incentives, and certainly if one of the incentives that a police department has is to be busy. We know there are a lot more police officers in places with a lot more crime. So if there was no crime to deal with there wouldn’t be many police officers. I mean, if you think about firefighters, talk about putting yourself out of a job, there aren’t any fires anymore. I don’t know what firefighters do all day. They’ve been pretty good I think at figuring out how to do things other than go put out fires. But, you know, you could imagine that if all the crime went away, the police would end up looking a lot more like firefighters than they would like police officers. And we just wouldn’t need that many of them around. So I think that’s sensible. But I also think that it’s deeper than that in that there is a mindset among the police which is that the law says that marijuana is illegal and it’s my job to uphold the law. And therefore marijuana is terrible.  


DUBNER: And Levitt let me just ask you one more thing before we move on about marijuana in particular. So Gallup polls, which are pretty consistent over time show that about 40 years ago, 12 percent of Americans favored marijuana legalization. And that number is up to 58 now. So almost five times as many. What do you think that represents, anything dramatic, or are we just seeing one of those gradual lines shifting that happens in society and nothing more than that?


LEVITT: I think it’s a reaction to the fact that marijuana just hasn’t proven to be that damaging, that a lot of people smoke marijuana, it doesn’t ruin their lives, and they go on to be regular folks who no longer smoke marijuana. It’s just, a lot of it comes down to how much weight you put on the utility of the user. Right, if you really think that the people who are smoking a lot of dope are having a lot of fun with it, then probably you tip the calculus toward let them smoke it. Otherwise if you think that’s the wrong kind of fun, you shouldn’t count that, then you think it shouldn’t be legal. But in a lot of ways I think it comes down to that simple issue.


DUBNER: And and Levitt just for the record, when’s the last time you smoked dope?


LEVITT: Oh, man it’s been a long time. I think it’s been…I think it’s been…It’s been at least probably close to 20 years.


DUBNER: If marijuana were totally and entirely decriminalized in Illinois and you could go to a nice little deli right outside the U. of C. there and buy some, would you do it tomorrow, or the next week?


LEVITT: I would occasionally smoke, but it wouldn’t be a way of life I don’t think.


DUBNER: would you like to say, try to play golf while stoned? Would that be a thrill for you?


LEVITT: No, not at all. I take my golf pure.


[MUSIC: Tallboy 7, “Retro Game Show”]


DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: not one but two listeners have ideas to help out the United States Postal Service. And: what to do when a company is dying:


LEVITT: Death is a part of human existence, and maybe death is a part of a company's existence the same way. And we should celebrate it and hasten it rather than spend all our time prolonging the last few years of life.




ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.


[MUSIC: Clip Art, “Pains of the Young” (from: Death v. Decline)]


DUBNER: Welcome back to FREAK-quently Asked Questions where Steve Levitt and I do our best to sort out what’s on your mind. Let’s get back to it.


DUBNER: Okay, question from René Verbeek, he writes, “When I send a letter from New York to Fairbanks, Alaska, the money I spend on this service is as high as sending the same letter from New York to Boston. You’d expect that the post office would ask more money from services to and from rural areas and less for services to and from urban areas.” Or I would add just for further way that from closer away. You pay 46 cents these days for a first-class stamp anywhere. And he asks, “Why is it that postal services have these flat rates and not a price proportional to the cost of the actual provided service?” I think that’s a great question Levitt. Any obvious answer to that other than evolution and randomness?


LEVITT: Well I think it’s complicated, right? The problem is that when you’re sending something that on average only costs 46 cents to try to customize whether it should be 41 cents, or 61 cents is really costly, because how are you going to figure out how to do it. And I think even just historically the idea of the stamp and the value of the stamp makes it more complicated.


DUBNER: But when you say it would be complicated, I mean, look there are transit services that do that. So New York doesn’t. New York if I buy a subway, one pass on a subway train it’s the same amount whether it’s a short ride or a long ride. A lot of cities however, you pay different for different zones. So let’s say it’s not one price for New York to Boston for a stamp, another price from New York to Charlotte and on and on and on, but let’s say there are zones, three zones, five zones, would that really be so complicated, and I guess what I’m really asking is would the U.S.P.S. not be in such bad shape if they’d actually been properly pricing their service all along?


LEVITT: I mean, that’s a good question, you’re really talking like an economist today, Dubner, what’s gotten into you?


DUBNER: I didn’t know you’d show up, so…


LEVITT: you’re really coming of age. I mean, I think it’s not clear. I mean, the real problem the postal service has is that the point of a letter has gotten a lot less important over time because there are much better substitutes than ever existed before. And you start with faxes and then you go to electronic mail, and then you go to texting. And it wouldn’t be at all surprising if you just took a bunch of business students and did a case study and said if your business was to deliver letters, what would happen if a lot better stuff came around. I think for sure the telephone wasn’t great, the telegraph, none of this stuff was good for the postal service. So I don’t know if I want to pin the financial difficulties of the postal service on that. It’s just a bulky way of trying to do business.


LEVITT: But that aside, I think…When I think about business and how to do things, I think experimentation is always a good idea. This is a great case where you might say try an experiment. Try an experiment where for one city of the United States, the postal service does divide the costs into these five different divisions like you said, or make it per mile, or whether it’s urban or rural. And I think you could begin to understand how people react to it.


DUBNER: Let me run this past you. Another listener named Nathan Conroy writes to say that “Every day when I open my mailbox,” he writes, “I’m continually puzzled at the concept of the failing U.S. Post Office at a time when we receive a hideous amount of junk mail every single day, how can the company behind the delivery of this madness be on the brink of fiscal collapse again and again and again?” So he goes on to say that, you know, as we’ve discussed, email and other technological advances have been slowly killing of the Post Office. He writes, “My question is this, when faced with such a vicious predator,” meaning mostly email, “why didn’t the U.S.P.S. jump on the electronic highway?” And he proposes a digital world in which you might receive a “U.S.P.S. certified email from you bank, employer children’s school. This certified email would let you know that the sender is legitimate, that no viruses will be attached and that you are not being fished. How do you know this? It’s simple. Prior to sending the email, the sender would have to 1. Verify identity, 2. Provide credentials, and most importantly 3., pay ten cents, 25 cents, 50 cents.” So that’s an interesting idea. I’m curious what you think of that as an idea that the U.S.P.S.  might should have embraced. But more broadly, you know, you wrote a blog post a few years back about “Good to Great,” the companies that were featured in that book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, and how the companies that went from good to great often ended up going to crap years after the book came out. And I just wanted to ask you generally about how hard it is for a company, whether it’s the U.S.P.S., or General Electric, or General Motors to survive and thrive over time, and whether companies, especially big companies are inherently maybe bad at changing with the times?


LEVITT: Yeah, I think for sure big companies are bad at making massive changes, I think for two reasons. One is that I think companies that are successful end up falling under the illusion of thinking that they are good at everything and that because they’re good at everything why should they have to change? And so I think that really hurts companies that have success even if they’re good at. I think most companies that make a ton of money often make it because they’re a little bit lucky, they have one good idea, they’re really good at one particular thing. Like Walmart is fantastic at logistics and no one’s ever been able to catch up to them and that’s a huge advantage. I mean, that doesn’t mean that Walmart’s great at figuring out what products to put in the stores, maybe they’re great at that too. But...the Post Office of all possible companies to try to make radical changes, a radical change that completely reinvents what they do, it’s just I think impossible because, I mean, you and I have talked a lot with businesses over the last ten years, and more or less I think most people in the business, if they truly tell you what they want, is they want to do the same thing today that they did yesterday. And they don’t want to have to rethink everything. And they don’t want to bet the entire future of the company on some crazy, new fangled email thing that nobody has back in 1997 when they would have had to have started thinking about this.


LEVITT: I think our reader’s point is a really interesting one. It’s a really innovative and creative idea, and I think it’s the kind of thing that could really work. Now, will that ever be the Post Office’s big business? Probably not. Should the Post Office be thinking about creative ways to use their brand name to try to be expanding into other things? I think for sure. I mean, certainly after Federal Express came in you saw the Post Office change what they were willing to do to try and do crazy things to get your package there in one day, just the way Federal Express will do that. And that was not something they offered before and they reacted to it. But that’s easier to react to I think then the email things. But. I’ve talked to a couple entrepreneurs who are out there trying to do what our reader suggests which is to create different classes of email, perhaps some of which cost and which carry different levels of importance and significance. And I think that’s great. It’s exactly what you want to do when there’s a service out there that’s completely free and which is absolutely and totally abused because of it,  is to create a close substitute that actually costs money and then to potentially get what we economists call separating equilibrium, where the people who are willing to pay five cents to reach out and touch you with an email can signal to you that they really are willing to pay to talk to you. Whereas the Nigerian scammers are not willing to pay five cents per person and so they would be separate.


DUBNER: But it’s kind of, I don’t know, painful a little bit to watch big, older companies that used to be phenomenally successful try to change. But from the outside it’s obvious that they’re going to fail. I guess I’m thinking right now the line of big old department stores, Sears and J.C. Penny. I don’t know, one or two of them may kind of lumber into the next, you know, economic cycle, but it seems like they’re all more like dinosaurs that are lumbering off to the graveyard and it’s just going to take a long time for them to finally lay down their heads and die. So, I mean, that’s the way capitalism works, and we love a lot of things about it, the dynamism, and the creative destruction, and all that. But is there some better model to think about if you are that big company or one of the thousands of employees of that big company who kind of sees that its obsolescence is around the corner, but can’t run from it?


LEVITT:I think that’s the magic of a business leader, right? So when you’re one of these companies, you’re faced with a challenge to either die the slow death that you’re talking about or to radically reinvent yourself and turn yourself into something great. And people try. I mean, J.C. Penney did some radical experiments with pricing. That didn’t work very well. But Apple, look Apple was terrible for a while. People thought Apple was going to die, it reinvented itself. IBM is an amazing success story for reinvention, going from making old, big computers that nobody wants anymore to…


DUBNER: Running a services business, yeah.


LEVITT: …being a consulting firm, yeah. I mean, yeah, so I think there are examples of great successes but it’s hard and it takes someone with vision, and it takes people in the organization willing to change. And I think a lot of times it’s just easier to start from scratch because you fight so much inertia. You know, I do a little bit of business consulting now, and the inertia in these big firms is just amazing how hard it is to turn those big old boats. And then every once in a while we work with a smaller, newer firm and everything just happens quickly. And it may just be, I mean death is a part of human existence, and maybe death is a part of a company's existence the same way. We should celebrate it and hasten it rather than spend all our time prolonging the last few years of life. Just like we do with humans it should be a reallocation of resources toward generation rather than, you know, maintenance.


[MUSIC: Trillium, “Black and White Rag” (from: Crossing the Stream)]


DUBNER: Hey, Levitt, let me ask you this: A reader, listener names Ryan Harris writes “Why don’t people wear hats anymore? Movies and TV tell us that leaving the house without a hat in the previous centuries would be like leaving without a cell phone today. What happened? Ryan Harris.” Levitt, Do you have any thoughts?


LEVITT: Yeah. I would say that we should flip the question on its head and we should ask why the hell did people ever wear hats?


DUBNER: Well I think we do know a little bit about that. Head covering has gone hand in hand with religious observance for millennia, right? But then there was the whole thing about class and all throughout Europe the hats had a signal of a different class. And how you doffed your hat when someone more senior came in contact. So you know, the hat was all kinds of religious and class signaling. So there were a lot of reasons. Is it maybe that just as we’ve become, I mean, our culture has become much less religious. Do you think that’s contributed to less hat wearing?


LEVITT: Oh, you know, these are hard. These are questions way above my pay grade. But I mean…


DUBNER: Above or below.


LEVITT: Above. I mean, to figure out big social phenomena are hard. Fashion’s changed immeasurably, and I think of a hat as being mostly about fashion. But that’s a good question. We got a lot of good questions from the readers today.


[MUSIC: Tallboy 7, “Electro Acoustic”]


DUBNER: Levitt, what would it take, how much would I have to pay you to wear, let’s say a fedora for a solid week?


LEVITT: A lot. I mean, I don’t even wear. I’m one of the only golfers that does not wear a hat.


DUBNER: I’ve never seen you wear any kind of hat.


LEVITT: I only wear. I wear hats in the winter to stay warm, but yeah, I just don’t wear hats.




DUBNER: Alright, good job Levitt, you did great.


LEVITT: Yeah, it was kind of…I thought I would be better. I thought I had my A game, but I didn’t really deliver.


DUBNER: No you delivered, you did great, that was good. Okay, thanks a bunch, talk to you soon. Bye bye.


LEVITT: Okay, bye.




DUBNER: That’s it for this edition of FREAK-quently Asked Questions. If you keep sending in your questions – to radio-at-freakonomics-dot-com -- we will keep answering them. On next week’s show -- we revisit a favorite episode which looks at how your behavior changes when you put on a mask.


Felix BARRETT: A middle-aged lady came and apologized to me afterwards and said, I’m so sorry I put the mask on, I found myself being very rude, I found myself getting too close to the performers, I even touched one at one point, I’m so sorry.


DUBNER: We go behind the scenes of “Sleep No More,” a fantastically interesting piece of immersive theater:


MAN : I got a little rude with people. I was kind of like get the hell out of the way, man.


WOMAN: I would not have usually blindly gone into dark corridors because I am usually scared of everything.


DUBNER: We also hear from the man who created the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment:


SPE: Prisoner 819 did a bad thing. Prisoner 819 did a bad thing…


DUBNER: That’s next time, on Freakonomics Radio.





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  1. NZ says:

    For a long time, I’ve been saying that our thinking about drug legalization is backwards. Some examples:

    -The first drugs we should be talking about legalizing are opium and coca derivatives, since the prohibition of these drugs causes the greatest harm.

    -Medical marijuana is not a good first step; rather, it is a disaster that will take the integrity out of any coherent argument for the legalization of marijuana or anything else.

    -Right now much of the conversation is about decriminalizing use and pursuing suppliers instead. This will have the most damaging results because the prohibition of the supply side is what causes all the violence and mayhem. Thugs aren’t shooting each other over their drug-taking, they’re shooting each other over their drug-dealing. If anything, we should relax regulation over the supply side and keep regulation over the demand side.

    -More to that last point, proponents of drug legalization tend to put forth arguments about accepting drug use as normal and healthy. There is some appropriateness for that with certain drugs in certain contexts–like taking hallucinogens under the supervision of a therapist to work out deep-rooted anxieties–but generally we should be coupling legal permissiveness with cultural restrictiveness to get the best results.

    -We tend to think of drug legalization as a liberal cause and drug prohibition as a conservative cause, but this is historically backward, and for the most part remains backward even today. There was no such thing as federal drug prohibition until Progressive Democrats invented it a century ago with the Harrison Act (its centennial will fall on December 17th of this year). Through even the 1960s, the political Left were staunch supporters and expanders of drug prohibition. Joe Biden played a huge role in ramping up the war on drugs via civil asset forfeiture. Many drug legalization advocates consider the Obama administration way more hawkish on drugs than Bush Jr. was. Notice that Obama campaigned on eliminating the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity but only scaled it back to 18:1–which is still enormous. And when you look at other campaigns to put the government between substances and the Americans who choose to use them (cigarettes, fast food, cola, etc.) it is mostly liberal Democrats leading the charge.

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  2. Jack Waddington says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • BadTrip? says:

      Sounds like you’ve been spending too much time at Colorado’s new marijuana shops!

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  3. Amber Gustafson says:

    On the topic of hat-wearing:
    (This would make a great show by itself, by the way)
    The real reason people wore hats (and no longer do so) is directly linked to hygiene and bathing frequency.
    I spoke once with an historical interpreter at Living History Farms in Des Moines, Iowa regarding her bonnet. She was depicting life on a 1840’s homestead and explained that her bonnet, aside from the obvious task of shielding her face from the sun, also served to keep her hair clean(er). With many tasks that caused chaff, dirt or other grime to become airborne; and with bathing being a weekly (or less frequent event due to it’s demand of resources), the bonnet served to both keep her hair relatively clean AND to hide hair that was, by the end of the week, quite dirty.
    Even those in upper class homes did not have fully modern plumbing as we would recognize it until the beginning of the 20th century – about the time hats began to wane in fashion. (My grandparents home, built in about 1903, had two bath tubs but no shower. Washing the body is easy but washing the hair, a bit more tricky in a tub.)
    Around this time it was also the custom for upper/middle class women to make a weekly “beauty operator” to have their hair washed, dried, curled and set; a time- and money-intensive process. Wearing a hat kept the hair-do clean and hid a hair-do that was ready to be re-done.
    Now that women wash and style their own hair almost daily (which began in the 1920’s with the mass-production of things like curling irons and hair dryers), hats are no longer necessary. Unless, of course, you are having a “bad hair day.”
    Other interesting topics in this vein would be questions like, “Why don’t women wear corsets any more?” (The answer, I believe has more to do with the weight of women’s clothing then vs. now and less to do with figure modification) AND “With all those clothes and long skirts – and *outhouses* in *January* – how did women use the toilet?” (who knew those saucy Victorians actually were the originators of crotchless panties?)
    Great show, gentlemen! Thank you!!

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    • James says:

      Apropos of headgear and hygene, Burns “To A Louse, On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet, At Church”

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    • Carolynp says:

      I think hats also shielded people from cool weather and warm weather in time periods where we didn’t have regular heating and cooling artificially. If you leave your home now, you’ll be in a warm conveyance quickly. It’s easy to forget it hasn’t always been so.

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      • James says:

        Maybe that’s true in your chosen lifestyle, but not everyone lives like that.

        There’s also quite a difference between a hat used as utilitarian warming device, and one that’s a fashion statement and/or customary article of attire. I wear a fuzzy ski-type hat when I’m out hiking, skiing, or whatever in colder weather, but it’s nothing at all like most hats worn by previous generations of men.

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  4. Dan says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  5. James says:

    I think you’ve bought in to one logical/factual flaw of the ‘War on Drugs’ propaganda machine. That’s the idea that a) strict law enforcement significantly reduces drug use; and the corrolary b) if it wasn’t for enforcement, everybody would be doing drugs.

    Reality is much different. Most of us have many more interesting things to do than drugs. It’s people – and animals: see e.g. Alexander’s ‘Rat Park’ experiments – who live in deprived environments that turn to drugs.

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    • NZ says:

      There are many outright lies spread by the drug war propaganda machine, but the particular logical/factual flaw you describe is more of just an overstatement. Yes, illicit drug use patterns follow waves and cycles independent of regulation, but it is disingenuous to say that reduction in drug law enforcement will not lead to some increase in drug use. That violates a basic principle in Econ 101: lower costs and consumption will rise.

      What should also be mentioned is that legalization may lead to changes in who uses what kind of drugs, in what manner, and for what reason.

      Aside from environment, there are also inborn traits that influence rates/likelihood of drug use as well. Some people have lower tolerances to certain chemicals due to evolution, some people have naturally lower impulse-control and gratification-delay ability, etc.

      One more thing worth mentioning, since you brought up law enforcement, is that drug prohibition serves a useful purpose for cops, in that it is much easier to bust someone for drugs than to bust them for a violent crime or property crime. So, drug laws act as a proxy by which cops can nab people who are likely involved in other criminal behavior that is harder to prove.

      Intuitively, this seems like a good idea likely to result in safer streets, but it actually makes streets more dangerous because the cycle goes like this: thug gets nabbed for drugs, goes to jail, learns how to be a real serious criminal, jail is overcrowded, thug gets released early as a “non-violent drug offender”. And that’s a best-case scenario!

      As Steve Levitt pointed out, this gives cops plenty more work.

      By the way, the drop in murder rate is masked by advances in emergency response technology. Violent crime may in fact have increased since the ramping up of the war on drugs.

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      • James says:

        I suspect this is wrong, though I know of no study that addresses the facts. However, it’s certainly been my observation that it’s fairly easy to obtain drugs despite all that enforcement. I’ve never known anyone to say that they’d start doing drugs if only they were legal. OTOH, I have known people to do them because they were illegal: high prices make them a luxury good, and the (perceived) cachet of being part of an elite who can do them with impunity only adds to the attraction. (Think e.g. certain Hollywood & Wall Street types, anfd their hangers-on.)

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      • NZ says:

        Obviously nobody thinks “I’d do [whatever currently illegal drug] if only it were illegal…” Well, actually that’s not true. If I knew I could get access to a certain pure, verified substances, and be able to buy them and use them without risking my legal freedom or my reputation, I’d want to try. I can’t be the only one.

        Another case in point is the fact that it’s okay if I sip beer around my daughter, but it’s totally not okay if I hit a joint. A few puffs of marijuana smoke have about the same degree of mind-altering effect on me as a couple beers, but marijuana is a scheduled drug so there’s the taboo, which successfully prevents me from seeking out or using it (as it should). But if marijuana was legal for a few decades, that would be different.

        So, the real effect of this is long-term. After a while of something being legal, people would grow accustomed to the idea that it’s okay to do, or at least not totally off-limits. Thus you’d have quite a few people using a drug they might otherwise not have.

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      • RD says:

        “I’ve never known anyone to say that they’d start doing drugs if only they were legal”

        I’ve heard people say exactly that, and in the specific cases I can think of, I believe them. Most people have a combination of enough resistance, and enough to lose, that they don’t use drugs now but would in a heartbeat if what they had to lose was sufficiently reduced or eliminated.

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      • Katter says:

        “I’ve never known anyone to say that they’d start doing drugs if only they were legal.”

        Well, get ready: If marijuana were legal where I live, I would start using it (probably about on the same level as I “use” alcohol; I usually drink a couple times per month). It’s not so much that I’m afraid of getting busted — though that is a factor — as that an illegal substance has no controls, no guarantee that I’m buying what I think I’m buying. So it’s not a matter of ease of obtainment so much as I don’t want the risks associated with smoking something that might not actually be marijuana.

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      • Steve says:

        @NZ says: “drug laws act as a proxy by which cops can nab people who are likely involved in other criminal behavior that is harder to prove”

        Your advocating for justice by proxy? Red heads tend to commit more homicide per person than other people so that leaves your argument equally valid to support laws criminalizing red hair.

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  6. Enter your name... says:

    What would happen if we put four cameras in a classroom?

    The class clown would realize that he has a worldwide audience, plus perhaps a permanent record that he could use to brag about the “cool” way he disrupted class, and he would take advantage of it.

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  7. Charles D'Atri says:

    You guys missed one of the most salient facts in your Postal Service discussion (and the reader contributions weren’t much help as the underlying facts were often wrong.) With the growth of ecommerce, the fundamental business of the Postal Service, delivering stuff, is great, although continuing to evolve. The Postal Service’s issue is, it isn’t fish nor fowl. They’re a business that has to ask Congress to change their rate card, rather than react to business conditions. They’re also dictated to and constrained by Congress when they attempt to manage their retirement/pension liabilities/obligations. (A requirement by Congress that they account differently for their pension liabilities is one of the biggest factors in their current annual deficit.) They should be able to charge whatever is necessary to operate universal first class service profitably.

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    • Melissa says:

      I want to strongly +1 Charles’ point. The Stevens really missed this one big time, and it might be worth asking if a very strong free-market ideology could account for why it never occurred to either of them to raise the issue of whether the USPS is actually prevented by Congress from doing anything innovative that could make it more profitable. Start with the whole idea of zone pricing. They legally can’t, period. The private competitors like UPS and Fedex have also spent a huge amount of lobbying money to make sure Congress actively prevents USPS from seriously competing with them. Economists call it “rent-seeking” and this is an industry that is pretty much defined today by successful rent-seeking at the expense of the public good in the form of an unhealthy public service provider.

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  8. J1 says:

    The trouble with this discussion is we only discuss legalizing drugs, without looking at other issues that would have to be addressed at the same time. I would advocate legalizing all drugs, including stripping government of the authority to require prescriptions (except in cases like antibiotics where the effectiveness of the drug itself is damaged by unrestricted use).

    We would need to make another change at the same time for legalization not to be a disaster; completely eliminate the ability to use intoxication or other impairment as a legal defense. In other words, if you intentionally take any substance that causes intoxication or impairment (and yes, that includes alcohol) any harm you commit as a result is likewise legally considered intentional and premeditated.

    It’s absurdly optimistic to think crime would disappear because drugs were legalized. There would probably be a reduction, but a lot of (probably most) crime involves obtaining money. Money is useful for a lot of things, including buying things that are legal.

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    • NZ says:

      I agree wholeheartedly with your first and second paragraphs. Your third paragraph assumes that most drug-related crime is committed by drug addicts trying to obtain money to buy drugs. That is incorrect: most drug-related crime is committed by drug dealers trying to obtain or retain their commercial real estate–or just doing stuff because they are mostly armed violent teenagers.

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      • J1 says:

        Actually just the opposite – my third paragraph assumes crime wouldn’t drop much because most crime isn’t directly related to drugs. Legalization would probably reduce the violent crime associated with the wholesale level of the illicit drug industry, but criminals in general will find other uses for what they steal or use it to buy more of what they bought before, gang members will still take issue with being “dissed” by rival gang members, and domestic violence (which most police consider the most dangerous type of call) may even increase. We’ll still have rapists, terrorists, nutjobs who want to make some sort of statement and murders for insurance money. I’m all for legalizing drugs, with the qualifications noted, but I think the idea that crime is going to be significantly reduced is ridiculous.

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      • NZ says:

        Ok, in that case I agree. Another thumbs up.

        Drug gangs will still kill each other over disses and turf, but without illegal drugs to sell they will be much smaller and have a much tighter bankroll. The perceived glory and glamor of joining one of these gangs may diminish too.

        It’s also worth mentioning here that drug prohibition is responsible, in part, for fueling illegal immigration. Drug cartels pay for the voyage of illegals across the border in exchange for their service as mules. Without the illegal drugs, cartels would mostly be relegated to much smaller industries, and ones that tend to run the other direction such as gun smuggling, or ones that don’t cross borders much at all like extortion and coal mining.

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  9. BRK says:

    I had heard that a contributing factor in hats going away was contributed to by the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Their were once 5 Billion of these birds they were reduced to by the early 1910’s

    1) It reduced the need for hats because it reduced the possibility of messed up hair.

    2) Bird extinctions (including said pigeon) caused many early conservationists to protest feathered hats.

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  10. Mike B says:

    Regarding the Post Office:

    1) Almost ALL first class mail is profitable, even when you send it to Alaska.
    2) The flat rate for letters is a government policy to help support rural areas that dates from the frontier days. It was essentially a cross subsidization scheme to support the unsettled rural areas.
    3) The Post Office can only engage in the business areas that Congress specifically ALLOWS it to enter. This is because it is a government regulated monopoly.
    4) The drop in First Class mail is what has caused the loss of profitability because it can be sorted automatically and weighs so little. All the junk mail is given steeply discounted rates that the post office is not able to raise due to Congress.

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  11. Mel Olson says:

    I delivered mail for the USPS from 1977-1979 and I’ve taught high school from 1982 to the present. The discussion about the Postal Service displayed an astonishing amount of ignorance. The U.S. Congress has final say over the price and services of the USPS. The USPS recently tried to end Saturday delivery for financial reasons and was stymied. When the USPS was “privatized”, it had to pre fund all of its pension obligations something other large concerns (e.g. General Motors) were not required to do. While the Congress says it wants the USPS to act like a business, it is a public good and when the USPS tries to make business decisions that upset the public the Congress hears their constituents and steps in to says “no.”

    Cameras in the classroom are one of those bad good ideas. The person asking the question assumes that cameras will have a “calming” effect on students and a quality effect on teachers. It will do the opposite. The rise of reality television has put a premium on eccentric and outrageous behavior. Students, especially immature junior high students, will view that as an opportunity for their “fifteen minutes of fame.” Teachers will become more staid and their methods less experimental because a single incident or failure could be used in a disciplinary way. Teaching is a little like being a comedian; timing matters, delivery matters, content matters and those things have to be worked out in front of a “live” audience which sometimes doesn’t go all that well the first time. A camera in the classroom would pressure a teacher to produce a “home run” every time and to be a constant paragon of virtue. Students and teachers have tempers and bad days. Allowing those isolated incidents, for both teachers and students, to live forever would be unfair – especially to an immature fourteen year old.

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    • Clancy says:

      The obvious answer to Dubner’s question about postal rates is “because it’s the law.” Postal rates are set by Congress, and part of the USPS Legal Mandate is that they are required to deliver anywhere in the country for a flat rate. On top of Congress’s status quo bias and their general inability to get anything done, rural areas are strongly over-represented and they would be the first to see their rates go up, or even their Post Offices close. So I don’t see this change happening anytime soon.

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  12. Des in NJ says:

    long term listener first time poster. i found the hat questions funny and i recall the downfall of men wearing hats attributed to JFK and how he stopped wearing them as a break in tradition and a younger next generation thing …. hats sales plummet overnight…

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  13. wydok says:

    I don’t think cameras in classrooms will help that much because the parents who would watch online are the parents that are already involved with their children’s education. Most of those students do well in school to begin with.

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  14. Seth Newsome says:

    Interesting discussion all around, but I feel you really missed some important points about the post office. I’m not always a fan of the Heritage Foundation, but I found they have a pretty good run-down of the facts affecting the post office these days.

    1. They can’t change their fundamental business model even if they wanted to. There is a legal restriction that gives them a monopoly for certain types of deliveries, but restricts them from any “non-postal” business. Would the “certified email” idea count or not? Could lead to legal trouble for them.

    2. The post office has to go running to Congress to make any changes in their business. Despite supposedly being an independent company now, they can’t change their rates, their operating hours, their level of service, or much of anything serious without running to a dysfunctional group like the US congress.

    3. They are required to pre-fund employee retirement benefits over a ridiculously short time frame. Congress gave them a mandate to pre-fund decades worth of pension benefits within a 10 year window. This isn’t the only reason they are struggling, but this requirement came in the middle of all their other challenges that you mentioned.

    I just wanted to bring this up because it really felt like you dropped the ball on this discussion, repeating received common wisdom about the post office failure instead of diving into the more nuanced discussion of their current problems.

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  15. josephine barajas says:

    Why doesn’t somebody make a reality show that helps feed the hungry people in the USA. Now that would be worth watching.

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  16. strayan says:

    It simply makes no sense that some plants are unlawful to consume (e.g. coca, poppy, cannabis etc) whilst others are lawful to consume (e.g. grapes, tobacco and nutmeg). It’s like saying it should be ‘illegal to consume beef and pork (because too much red meat and fatty bacon is bad for your health) but legal to consume chicken and lamb’ and then ‘why should we legalise beef and pork when we have enough problems caused by the meats we already have i.e. fried chicken and lamb kebabs!’

    Would it be sensible to punish people who prefer beefsteaks instead of fried chicken? Why is it okay to punish people who chose to consume a different psychoactive plant to the majority of people?

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    • NZ says:

      If it makes no sense to you, it’s probably because you’re not looking at the actual arguments put forward in defense of drug prohibition. I’m not saying I agree with those arguments, but they do have a logic to them even if they fail to be net-positive in the real world:

      Drug prohibition has never been primarily expressly about protecting people from their own bad habits–that is only a byproduct. Eating too much bacon may give you heart problems, but it isn’t going to impact your ability to drive your car safely or do your job well or raise your kids in a wholesome environment.

      Also, it’s hard to correlate beef and pork consumption with anything very useful from a law & order perspective. Carrying drugs around in public, meanwhile, is strongly correlated with other criminal activity.

      Another aspect of the war on drugs is that it’s always been mainly About The Children. The Progressives who started the war on drugs a century ago were mostly uppity feminists. In the mid-century, it was Concerned Moms groups who urged the government to crack down on LSD and marijuana. In the 1980s it was Nancy Reagan doing the same thing with her “Just Say No” campaign.

      Meanwhile, most sensible people don’t have a problem letting kids consume meat, even fried meat.

      (Actually, scratch that: today, it’s Michelle Obama stepping in telling kids “Let’s Move” and what to eat, because apparently she knows better than their parents.)

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  17. Inner City Teacher says:

    As a career changer coming from the business world to the most challenged middle schools in NYC, I look with a Freakonomic eye at what’s going wrong in these schools. I’ve even gone from teaching in underperforming neighborhood schools to a school designed for overaged kids, meaning kids who have been left back again and again.
    Cameras in class would have many pros and cons but those kids who are unable to sit and sustain desk work for a full period would not suddenly be “fixed” because cameras are there, thet would probably stop showing up. What the NYC Dept of Ed fears worse than anything would be parents and the public finding out how many kids have issues that are not being met.

    Attention and focus issues are rampant, whether kids have been classified or not, but the underlying cause for dysfunction in class leads back to the home and the draconian high stakes testing regime these kids grew up with. Cameras will show the ‘leaders’ stirring up the ‘followers’ and even decent teachers unable to stem the tide of misbehavior because there is no longer anything left to hold over the heads of the most defiant kids.

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  18. goonerish says:

    US postal service might indeed go bust soon. And listening to the alternative ideas suggested, I was reminded about India Post, the postal service in India. There too, the postal service was facing a decline. They then reinvented themselves. India Post now provides savings account facility, life insurance policies and also has an independent recognised bank under them. They also act as a data collection repository for the government. The postal service there is now getting back to life from being in coma for some time.

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  19. ESPOB says:

    I think you missed the mark on the segment about the USPS. It isn’t like private-sector businesses or even like its competitors in parcel delivery, in that it is constitutionally mandated and answerable to the U.S. Congress, and is not free to make its own business decisions. The USPS charges the same rate to send a letter everywhere because it is required to, and it has to get congressional approval for many business decisions that FedEx and UPS are free to handle as they see fit, for better or for worse. Recently the USPS tried to cut Saturday delivery, and Congress declared that they were required to provide it. UPS and FedEx deliver on Saturdays, but only for their more expensive expedited services and for an additional charge on top of that.

    UPS and FedEx also charge more for delivery to residential addresses as opposed to commercial ones, charge more for rural areas than for urban ones or destinations with higher service density, closer to their hubs, etc. So clearly that isn’t too complicated to manage. The USPS just isn’t allowed to do it that way for the most part. They do offer a small variety of “regional rate” boxes but these are only available under certain specific circumstances. UPS and FedEx rates are probably not a perfect representation of the actual difference in cost between delivery to different addresses; they are probably more a balance between the difference in cost and what customers will accept. And it does not take an ideal or perfect correlation to still be an improvement on a flat fee.

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  20. Eric says:

    The “pay for e-mail” model already exists. You are able to sign your e-mail with a certificate (or use smart cards, or tokens). Those certificates cost something, companies exist that create and sell smart cards, and RSA, for one, makes a lot of money off of tokens. In fact, having a system that processes the certificates, issues certificates, etc cost quite a lot. And organizations that value having an e-mail signed so that you can verify the e-mail came from someone in particular pay that cost. You, as an individual, can do it too. Verisign will sell you a certificate!

    Again, the USPS missed the boat. And while yes, the U.S. Congress has helped keep the USPS tied up in red tape so that it missed all those boats, there could have been someone at the USPS that realized they were missing those boats and done something to cut the red tape. But there were too many who thought that the Congress would always be there to help make the USPS viable. Neither rain, nor snow, just too big to, ahem, fail.

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  21. Dave A says:

    Wow, I cringed through most of the discussion on the USPS and its rates. It’s amazing how an organization that touches the lives of virtually every person in the US every day is so badly misunderstood. I guess that’s a PR issue.

    The USPS’s Universal Service Obligation (USO), as called for in the US Constitution, is usually interpreted to mean that the USPS must provide universal service at a uniform rate for “first class mail”, which is why a letter or “flat” are charged the same rate whether they’re going to across the street or across the nation. The USPS does, however, use zone-based pricing for package services; the further a package is going, the more it costs.

    Also, as a point of interest, the USPS invented Express Mail (overnight delivery service) in 1970, a full year before FedEx was founded in 1971. Express Mail from the USPS was experimental until approved as a permanent service/class of mail in 1977.

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  22. Travis says:

    Was listening to this … regarding the health of the USPS. I often laugh how no one remembers the short lived Prodigy, Aol and CompuServe. These services used to thrive and CHARGE per email!?! Can you believe that? Yes, computer companies copied the USPS and how quickly did these companies fail due to innovation in the marketplace. AOL is the last survivor – and this is because they shifted their business model (many times) to innovate, and adapt to the marketplace. Yes, people still have addresses however I highly doubt that most of their income is coming from this.

    My memory is fuzzy but it was something like $15/month for unlimited dial-up internet service + 30 emails/per month. Additional emails were 5 or 10cents a pop. How many emails do you send daily? or Texts?

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  23. Vance says:

    True Story.

    Airline pilot here. I was fired from a major airline for not wearing a hat.

    …And then the guy who fired me – quit a few days later.

    They come in varying flavors and intensities, but the world is full of people who like to hurt others. Usually it is for some anachronistic, procrustean belief like a hat that they cling to.

    So, thanks for your discussion on the silliness of hats. Gave me a chuckle….

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  24. SuperBF says:

    I’m amazed how simple the thinking on pot was on freakanomics. I mean, c’mon. I listen to Freakonomics for something more in depth that a couple of guys talking by the water cooler what they “think” – I can get that at work.

    Particularly crazy was thinking that the harm caused by pot is only from the laws. That is like saying, well the harm from speeding comes from the money people lose in speeding tickets.

    No mention of how the amount of tax you need to make worthwhile to society, will drive it back underground. No mention of the increased supply as companies are allowed to industrial farm pot. No mention of the increased marketing that will come from trying to unload the increased supply. No mention of the increased investment, demanding return will lead to more creative ways of selling it. No mention of all this combining to create an environment where new users are going to be needed, and new users of pot = teens of course.

    I mean, how can you avoid all these complicated issues while just joking around that you probably wouldn’t do it while golfing, but would enjoy it occasionally. Wow, so informative. Thanks.

    You sound like a Doctor pushing cigarettes in the 60s.

    Please if you are going to a show on pot, do some research, get some facts, do some thinking economically of how it is going to work, and what the world will look like after.

    No wonder the people who think it is no big deal to de-regulate the pot industry and let the mass marketing begin is going up. Shows like yours are pretty much the pot industry talking points and nothing more. They only voice that has been heard on this matter really are just the guys who stand to profit.

    Disappointed my Freakonomics couldn’t do better.

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  25. Daniel says:

    I’m kind if surprised that you guys didn’t know this: John F. Kennedy killed the hat. More properly speaking, he set the fashion trend of not wearing hats. Before Kennedy, most men wore hats. After Kennedy, most men did not.

    And as long as I’m posting: I agree that drug laws do more harm than good. I think the modern drug laws were passed when prohibition was repealed because law enforcement wanted something to do. Of course the prison industry (selling supplies to prisons, and occasionally running private prisons) are a powerful lobby for more and harsher prison terms, as these increase their profits. Most prisoners in the U.S. should never have been put there. If we only imprisoned violent offenders and thieves, we’d probably have 1/10 the prison population we have today.

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    • Christopher says:

      I just listened to the podcast and I was surprised as well that they had not heard about the hat/Kennedy connection. I read an article recently about this. What I had read was that the presidents before JFK wore hats to their inaugurations, but JFK did not, and that killed the trend. I’m sure that it is more complicated than that, but it all stemmed from Kennedy’s snubbing of the hat.

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  26. Dan D'Errico says:

    Hi! In one of your recent podcasts, you discussed what might be done to improve the postal service. There are two issues which you did not mention that may explain the problems the service faces and they are both political, not financial.

    First of all, Congress has singled out the Postal Service to pre-fund its retirement benefits. Instead of a pay as you go system, all lot of the income of the service is being put asideasretirement benefits for employees who have not been born yet. Second, the Postal Service has made numerous attempts to modernize and take on more challenges buts these attempts have been thwarted by Congress as well.

    Now you might ask why legislators would like to hinder the service or see it fail. I believe the answer is twofold. First, conservative members of Congress believe that “no government is the best government”, so this is a great chance to harm a governmental service. Second, I believe that the postal service may have the largest amount of union members in the country. The ability to decimate the service and then blame the unions and the government for the failures is a win-win. And then the private sector can use this failure as a rallying point to privatize the mail service and award huge contracts to cronies and financial backers.

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  27. Stella says:

    I was very disappointed in the segment on drug legalization, particularly because I think that the blind spot in your analysis is one of many in a recurring, and quite intellectually compromised, theme.

    Even focusing on the USA alone (perhaps not possible since the “war on drugs” is primarilly an internationally intended policy), the real issue of drug legalization does not have to do with personal freedoms, and has everything to do with long-term economic effects. Drug criminalization disproportionately affects people of color. Astounding numbers of people of color are arrested and imprisoned for drug crimes (there is much research on this, I’m not going to bother to link). You focus on the costs to police departments in enforcing these laws, which is only one factor. I’m not sure whether you took into account the economy of the prison industry, but if so that certainly paints a complicated picture of costs (enormous taxpayer costs and public funding, with an estimated half of prisoners nationally incarcerated for drug crimes) and benefits (taking out moral questions, it is a leading industry in the country, with attendant employment and etc.).

    What you certainly failed to include is the cost of criminalizing and incarcerating an entire segment of the population. By systematically locking up people of color at enormous rates, a large percentage of the population faces a cycle of interrupted production and education, loss of countless employment opportunities for the rest of a person’s life, loss of family income, loss of familial support structures. Even brushing aside the attendant traumas and community stresses that system, the “prison pipeline,” places on the country (I know some questions are too big, although that, too, has economic ramifications generationally), the real costs of denying one segment of the population rights, freedom, and economic opportunity/recovery on a mass scale and at hugely disproportionate rates surely plays a significant role in our country’s economy, stratification, and wealth disparity.

    I am disappointed in your coverage of this, and in fact I will likely not be a listener in the future, since I often seethe at similar blind spots in your otherwise often innovative and compelling coverage. I joke that the podcast might be better called “Freakonomics: The Hidden Side of Everything (About White People).” But honestly, after that last, it feels too intellectually limited and dishonest to give real insight.

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  28. Mark says:

    Hey – I heard you talking about a certified email service for USPS – just wanted to let you know that in Germany something similar is actually implemented at the moment: see more at


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  29. Sheena says:

    I’m just listening to the podcast and am at the section on USPS not varying the price of postal services and not getting on the digital band wagon of e-mail. Canada Post does this, it’s called epost, I get my T4 there and most of my bills but they’re still in trouble. They’re ceasing door to door postal delivery in favor of central mailboxes to cut down on their labor cost. Perhaps this is simply an obsolete service to be fully replace with either courrier services or digital services?

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  30. bobbypin says:

    Levitt’s point about why the USPS didn’t jump on the email bandwagon was interesting because as it happens, Finland did just this. I worked on it (indirectly). It wasn’t quite what Levitt proposed, but something perhaps more interesing. I’ll summarize the logic, which took place in the very early 00’s if not even late 90’s:
    – everyone has a physical mailbox, to which anyone knows they can send a letter or package and KNOW that it will reach the right person (particularly if it’s a registered letter). Banks and government are perfectly ok sending people physical mail.
    – email is inherently INCREDIBLY insecure. No organization wants to send anything actually confidential, valuable, private, to people’s personal emails. An assumption that turned out to be pretty much correct.
    – as the world becomes more and more net-connected, there needs to be some kind of verified, secure replacement for physical mail.
    – so how about the Post office assign everyone an “official” email address? This could be used by organizations that expect or require recipient verification, encryption, privacy, etc.

    So that’s what they did. The Finnish Post put a lot of money into building a browser-based email infrastructure where any resident can get an official email address (for free), and everyone’s identity is verified. It’s not “normal” email – anyone can’t send mail to anyone else – only registered/verified organizations can send mail to recipients. So the whole point is to use this as the portal by which organization like banks, government, companies wanting to send bills, etc, can reach citizens in a single, standard, verified way. And then they advertised this quite aggressively nationwide. It’s also a whole portal to accessing government forms and other similar things.

    It’s a nice idea, but did it work? Not exactly. Close to 10,000 organizations have signed up, and there are half a million registered users (only 20% of the population, pretty paltry when you figure that’s not “active” users). But it just hasn’t become the “de facto mailbox replacement” that they planned. Personally, I only receive tax and pension documents there.
    Why didn’t it succeed better? That’d be interesting to know, but I think partly because the need for a “verified way to contact someone” was mostly already delivered by banks – everyone has an online bank account and in Finland this is a very normal way to receive bills. So I don’t think people were very interested in yet another mailbox. It was also perhaps too early, ironically. People were just getting used to email and web, I think it was a little ahead of its time.
    The Post should’ve also worked closer with private companies like banks to unify it all. As a bureaucratic government monopoly, the Post is anything but efficient at this kind of stuff.

    Technically, I think the idea was a good one and it’s a shame they couldn’t pull it off. Today, even just looking at the “secure” sites I use like paypal etc, I sure as heck would rather manage these accounts and communication at one verified location communication than each having their own. It’s pretty easy to argue that today’s situation extremely insecure, and far more hassle.

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  31. Shuowen Lou says:

    I think it’s a good idea. You can also use social cost assessment, since it’s easy to find what’s the hidden costs of the marijuana legalization, like the number of “grow-ops”. It could allow decision makers to understand all costs of the legalization.


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  32. Karina says:

    I meant to comment on this earlier. Normally I really like the discussion/view that the podcast provides, but I think that you guys were wrong in the discussion of the postal service. The fact that you refer to USPS as a “company” shows a lack of understanding of how USPS functions. Several other people have already mentioned the fact that USPS requires Congressional approval to raise rates or change service, something that limits their ability to adapt quickly. About 15 years ago I worked at an economic consulting company that provided support to USPS. They can’t just raise rates – it requires a rate case with justification on how costs are changing. This shows two aspects that differ from a for-profit business: Congressional oversight and a goal of revenue neutrality (not profit).

    Two other issues that I haven’t seen discussed in other comments (I might have missed them): 1) Congressional mandate is also requiring USPS to pre-fund future health care obligations for all current and former employees, a requirement that ensures funding but cuts into the current budget.
    2) USPS also has a mandate to serve everyone which limits the ability to price discriminate based on where customers live. In fact, for-profit companies (UPS, FedEx) use USPS to deliver packages in a lot of rural areas because it’s cheaper for them to pay USPS rates instead of doing it themselves. So, the for-profit companies are using this system for their advantage.

    There are some really interesting issues and challenges for USPS but the podcast discussion missed most of the important issues.

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  33. Jeremy says:

    I’m a bit behind because I usually listen on podcasts when I get around to it…

    The discussion of USPS on the show was interesting – partially because in fact USPS did try to get in front of the email bandwagon a long time ago (I think in the 1990s). I don’t recall the details, but they had several different product ideas including providing their own email service (before the growth of the internet effectively closed down “walled gardens” like AOL and CompuServe and forced them to open to the world), and ideas including selling X.509 certificates (which are a much better way of logging in than passwords, but have never taken off for a variety of reasons). And they’re still trying to do this – a bit of Googling found a document from last year proposing “USPS Electronic Postmark” (no idea if this is a product or just a concept).

    (Incidentally, the example given on the show of a USPS guarantee for email has also been tried. There are numerous technical problems with doing something like what the letter writer suggested – but it’s far from a novel idea. The hardest part is ensuring that the “bad guy” can’t create an email that looks just like one of the “certified letters” in such a way that the person can’t easily tell the difference.)

    So while it’s undoubtedly true that USPS has stumbled and continues to flounder, it’s not so clear that they were unaware of what was going on around them. (And as many other commenters have noted, they have their hands tied by laws and regulations about what businesses they can go into.)

    I have no affiliation with the USPS, other than as a customer!

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