A Health Upside of Natural Gas

A working paper (PDF; abstract) from economists Resul Cesur, Erdal Tekin, and Aydogan Ulker explores the effects of increased natural gas use on infant mortality:

In this paper, we use the variation across space and time in the expansion of natural gas infrastructure in Turkish provinces using data between 2001 and 2011. Our results indicate that the rate of increase in the use of natural gas has resulted in a significant reduction in the rate of infant mortality in Turkey. In particular, a one-percentage point increase in the rate of subscriptions to natural gas services would cause the infant mortality rate to decline by 4 percent, which could result in 348 infant lives saved in 2011 alone. These results are robust to a large number of specifications.

The authors outline two ways through which the effect may occur:

FREAK-est Links

1. You too can outsource your job to China.

2. What are all those bacteria doing in the troposphere? (academic paper/press summary)

3. How much of your state's road budget is funded by the government?

4. North Korea gets the Google Maps treatment.

The Mixed Blessings of a Welfare Program

A new paper (abstract; PDF) by Gustavo J. Bobonis, Melissa González-Brenes, and Roberto Castro examines the effects the Mexican welfare program Oportunidades on spousal abuse:

Beneficiary women are 40 percent less likely to be victims of physical abuse, but are more likely to receive violent threats with no associated abuse. This evidence is consistent with a model of decision-makers' interactions with asymmetric information in the male partner's gains to marriage, who can then use threats of violence to extract rents from their female partners.

"The article may have important implications for policy, since it provide a mixed view of conditional cash transfer programs’ effectiveness in improving women’s empowerment within the household," the authors wrote in an earlier draft. "The program may increase the likelihood of violent threats, which may in turn compromise women’s emotional health and other aspects of their wellbeing."

In SuperFreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner wrote about another interesting research finding gleaned from Oportunidades data:

The Undercover Economist's New Radio Series

Tim Harford, a.k.a. the Undercover Economist (also a Financial Times columnist) has a new radio series on the BBC called Pop-Up Economics:

The show is all about storytelling – and the stories are of remarkable lives or surprising ideas in economics. We’ll learn about the impromptu engineering genius Bill Phillips, the cold war guru Thomas Schelling, and life-saving market designer Al Roth. We’ll discover how the geeks took over poker, and what happened to them.

And the series begins with the innovation lessons from the London Olympics – or as we’ve called it, “Hot Pants vs. the Knockout Mouse.”

We'll be tuning in.

A History of Facebook's New Search Engine

Steven Levy of Wired provides the "inside story" of Facebook's new search engine, Graph Search:

For years now, Facebook watchers have wondered when the company would unleash the potential of its underpowered search bar. (Nobody has feared this day more than Google, which suddenly faces a competitor able to index tons of data that Google’s own search engine can’t access.) They have also wondered how a Facebook search product might work. Now we know. Graph Search is fundamentally different from web search. Instead of a Google-like effort to help users find answers from a stitched-together corpus of all the world’s information, Facebook is helping them tap its vast, monolithic database to make better use of their “social graph,” the term Zuckerberg uses to describe the network of one’s relationships with friends, acquaintances, favorite celebrities, and preferred brands.

FREAK-est Links

1. Austin tries to incentivize employees to leave their cars at home, but it doesn't work.

2. Are 60 percent of New York State's cigarettes smuggled in?

3. Freakonomics movie trailer in Italian.

4. Sunk costs and Mark Sanchez.

5. Garlic smugglers in the E.U. dodge high import duties. (HT: Rich)

How to Get More Out of College

We've blogged and podcasted about the value (or lack thereof?) of a college education.  A new paper (summarized here) by sociologist Laura Hamilton suggests one way parents can help their kids get more out of college: help them a little less -- with tuition, at least.  Here's the abstract:

Evidence shows that parental financial investments increase college attendance, but we know little about how these investments shape postsecondary achievement. Two theoretical frameworks suggest diametric conclusions. Some studies operate from amore-is-more perspective in which children use calculated parental allocations to make academic progress. In contrast, a more-is-less perspective, rooted in a different model of rational behavior, suggests that parental investments create a disincentive for student achievement. I adjudicate between these frameworks, using data from nationally representative postsecondary datasets to determine what effect financial parental investments have on student GPA and degree completion. The findings suggest seemingly contradictory processes. Parental aid decreases student GPA, but it increases the odds of graduating—net of explanatory variables and accounting for alternative funding. Rather than strategically using resources in accordance with parental goals, or maximizing on their ability to avoid academic work, students are satisficing: they meet the criteria for adequacy on multiple fronts, rather than optimizing their chances for a particular outcome. As a result, students with parental funding often perform well enough to stay in school but dial down their academic efforts. I conclude by highlighting the importance of life stage and institutional context for parental investment.

China's "Little Emperors"

In a Freakonomics Radio episode called “Misadventures in Baby-Making,” we looked at the unintended consequences of China's One Child Policy. A new paper (gated) in Science looks at the so-called "little emperors" and how they might impact China's economy. From Bloomberg:

China’s one-child policy has produced adults that tend to have personality traits unsuited for starting businesses or managing companies, according to a study that adds to economic concerns surrounding the rule.

Using surveys of 421 men and women in Beijing and testing their skills in economic games, researchers in Australia found those born after the 1979 policy were more pessimistic, nervous, less conscientious, less competitive and more risk averse. They also found them to be 23 percent less prone to choose an occupation that entails business risk, such as becoming a stockbroker, entrepreneur or private firm manager.

(HT: Katherine Wells)

Surprising New Findings on Obesity

One of the first Freakonomics Radio podcasts we made was an episode about the (surprisingly tenuous) link between obesity and health problems. A new study in The Journal of the American Medical Association finds that "Grade 1 obesity overall was not associated with higher mortality, and overweight was associated with significantly lower all-cause mortality."  Writing for The Daily Beast, Kent Sepkowitz explains:

Compared to people with a normal weight (a BMI less than 25), the overweight (BMI between 25 to 30) had a 6 percent lower mortality rate—and both groups had a rate about 15 percent lower than the obese, especially the very obese (BMI above 35).

The explanation for the finding is uncertain. Perhaps the pleasantly plump but not obese have an extra reserve—a literal spare tire—that confers a survival advantage should they become seriously ill, whereas the lean-iacs do not. Or maybe the thin ones were thin because of a serious illness that, in the course the various studies, killed them. Or maybe the thin ones were thin because they were chain smokers living off Scotch and potato chips. Or just maybe the occasional pig-out does soothe the soul and make for a happier, healthier individual.

(HT: Andrew Sullivan)

Petitioning the President

The Atlantic has a roundup of the 12 goofiest petitions submitted so far to the White House's We the People initiative.  Our two favorites: "Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016" and "authorize the production of a recurring television program featuring Vice President Joe Biden."  

A petition to "Direct the United States Mint to make a single platinum trillion-dollar coin" has so far garnered only 5,149 signatures (as compared to the Death Star's 33,836 signatures), even though Paul Krugman recently endorsed of the idea. Stephen Colbert has also weighed in on the #Mintthecoin movement.