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Print, Persuade and Post

My coauthor (and 16-year-old daughter) Antonia Ayres-Brown just published a piece in Slate about a project that started 5 years ago when we bleg’d Freakonomics readers to tell us about how McDonald’s refers to Happy Meal toys. Antonia was disturbed by the kinds of questions we encountered when we ordered Happy Meals at the drive-thru. We’d be asked things like “Is it for a boy or girl?” or “Do you want a girl’s toy or a boy’s toy?”

asked readers whether they encountered similar questions.  According to seventy nine reader responses, approximately one-fifth of the time McDonald’s employees did not ask a toy-related question.  But when employees did ask a toy-related question:

47.7%                    Asked “Is It for a Boy or Girl?”

31.8%                    Asked “Do You Want A Boy’s Toy or a Girl’s Toy?”

15.9%                    Described the toys in non-gender terms.

I’ve waited this long to report the results because Antonia have I have been engaged in a long-term project to encourage McDonald’s to describe the toys without reference to children’s gender. Read More »



Not-So-National Merit

Last December, thousands of high school sophomores and juniors learned the results of the 2013 Preliminary SAT (PSAT) test.  The juniors’ test scores will be used to determine whether they qualify as semifinalists for the prestigious National Merit Scholarship, which in turn makes them eligible for a host of automatic college scholarships.  (Sophomores take the test just as practice.)

The juniors will have to wait to find out for sure if they qualify until September, just before they begin submitting applications to colleges across the country.  But it is fairly straightforward to predict, based on their scores and last year’s cutoffs, whether they will qualify as semifinalists.

Many students would be surprised to learn that qualification depends not only on how high they score, but also on where they go to school.   The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) sets different qualifying cutoffs for each state to “ensure that academically talented young people from all parts of the United States are included in this talent pool.”  They have not disclosed any specific criteria for setting the state cutoffs. Read More »



A Good Instrument Is Hard to Find

Phoebe Clarke recently posted a Deadspin article about an article that we just published in The Journal of Socio-Economics. The article, “The Chastain Effect: Using Title IX to Measure the Causal Effect of Participating in High School Sports on Adult Women’s Social Lives,” adopts an ingenious methodology pioneered by Betsey Stevenson (whose research is frequently featured here) in her 2010 study “Beyond the Classroom: Using Title IX to Measure the Return to High School Sports.” Stevenson estimates the effects of participating in high school sports on women’s economic lives, and finds that sports participation leads women to attain higher levels of education and earn more. I apply the same methodology to social outcomes, and find that sports participation causes women to be less religious, more likely to have children, and, if they do have children, more likely to be single mothers. Read More »



The Problem of Dominated Funds

This is the second in a series of posts about the problem of excess fees charged to defined contribution retirement plans.

Retirement regulations have largely been successful in giving worker/participant defined contribution plans the opportunity to diversify.  Most plans nowadays give participants a sufficient variety of investment options that it is possible to allocate investments so as to diversify away most idiosyncratic risks.

However, the 1974 Employment Retirement Income Security Act’s (ERISA) emphasis on diversification has diverted attention from the problem of excess costs.  Courts evaluating whether plan fiduciaries have acted prudently have tended to just ask whether the plan offered a sufficient number of reasonably-priced investment opportunities.  For example, in Hecker vs. Deer & Co. (7th Cir. 2009), the 7th Circuit found it was “untenable to suggest that all of the more than 2500 publicly available investment options had excessive expense ratios.” Read More »



Making It

In 2009, I published a post on this blog about Sarah Dooley, which ended with the words:

I predict she is going to make it big. I’m not sure how, but remember you heard it here first.

A couple of months later, I received a letter out of the blue from a legit movie producer who said he was writing to thank me for that post because from it he learned how talented Sarah is.  He wrote that he had just signed a contract with her to develop a screenplay.

Fast forward to the present, and while I can’t find any movies made with Sarah’s scripts, I was happy to hear this NPR interview with her about an album she just released.  The album is called “Stupid Things.”  My favorite song, “Gym Looks Nice,” is a school dance tone poem that is characteristically moving.  My daughter tells me that at one point, it made it into the top twenty downloads on iTunes.  Sarah’s also released a music video of her song “Peonies.” Read More »



If You Care About Costs . . .

This is the first in a series of posts about the problem of excess fees charged to defined contribution retirement plans, a subject I’ve been researching with Quinn Curtis.  Our findings about the pervasiveness of excess fees spurred me to reassess my own retirement investments.  I was embarrassed to find that, among other things, my old Stanford University 401k was invested in “CREF Stock Account,” which uses a combination of “active management, enhanced indexing and pure indexing” and charges 49 basis points (.49%) as its “Estimated Expense Charge.”  Now 49 basis points is not an outrageously high fee, but it is substantially higher than the fees charged by a low-cost index. 

So I called TIAA-CREF and asked for help in rolling over my Stanford account to a Fidelity IRA.  The TIAA CREF rollover specialist asked why I wanted a rollover, we had the follow brief exchange: Read More »



Exploitation-Neutral Consumption

Watching The Wolf of Wall Street was a guilty pleasure for me.  It wasn’t that the movie valorizes Jordan Belfort’s crimes, which defrauded victims of more than a hundred million dollars, but I felt uneasy about being entertained by a work of art indirectly derived from the pain of others – especially since it wasn’t clear that the injured parties were participating in the movie’s profits.

The movie literally and figuratively kept the victims of Belfort’s fraud outside the frame. In only a few scenes do we hear even the disembodied voices of the defrauded investors.  But imagine what it would be like to watch the movie in the presence of one of Belfort’s 1,500 real-life victims, whose ranks included architects, engineers, insurance agents, real estate appraisers, and other middle-class professionals.

The movie repeats Belfort’s claim that his firm only targeted the super-rich. The idea is that we needn’t worry so much about who was hurt by these crimes, because these investors were so wealthy that they wouldn’t be as impacted by the loss of a few dollars. But some of his victims’ families tell a very different story: “My father lost practically a quarter-million dollars,” said one man, whose father, an engineer, was cold-called at home by a Stratton broker. His father suffered a stroke under the stress of his losses. As another investor puts it: “I’m not a rich guy, and I’ve been paying for it ever since.” Read More »



An App for a New Kind of Holiday

In 2009, while watching the closing credits of Invictus, the film about Nelson Mandela’s first years as South African president, I heard Yollandi Nortjie sing “9000 days were set aside / 9000 days of destiny / 9000 days to thank Gods wherever they may be.”  Mandela spent 9,000 days in prison (about 24.7 years).

For some reason, I started thinking about the power of expressing the passage of time in alternative incremental units, and after playing around on Excel, I figured out that my spouse and I would soon have the opportunity to celebrate our “ten millionth marriage minute” (a little over 19 years). 

It struck my fancy that this was a length of time worthy of observing in some way – even if just as an excuse to share a nice bottle of wine.  For whatever reason, I loved discovering these additional, arbitrary moments of celebration and I decided it would be pretty easy to alert people when an unusual holiday was about to occur.  Read More »