Charles Darwin: Fiscal Alchemist? Bring Your Questions for Cornell Economist Robert Frank

Back in 2007, we had a lively debate around a series of excerpts that Cornell economist Robert Frank contributed to the Freakonomics blog. We're hoping an excerpt from his latest book,  The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, will spawn a similar conversation.
In it, Frank makes a rather bold prediction: within the next century, Charles Darwin, the naturalist, will unseat Adam Smith as the intellectual founder of economics. Frank believes Darwin's insights into the nature of competition describe our current economic reality far better than Smith's invisible hand. Frank argues that we live in a world where competition doesn't channel self-interest for the common good, but rather into unbridled "arms races" where relative position is pursued above all else: who has the biggest bank? The biggest house? These races rarely benefit group interests. In fact, Frank argues, they have done enormous harm to our economy and provided no lasting advantages or benefits, since gains tend to be relative and offsetting.

Cost of College on the Rise (Again)

The numbers are in on how much it costs to go to college this year, and (surprise) they're up again, thanks largely to decreases in state funding and increasing enrollments. The biggest price hikes came in the public sector: An 8.7 percent increase for in-state tuition at public two-year schools, and an 8.3 percent jump in the price of four-year public institutions, for in-state students.

If you remove California (which enrolls about 10 percent of the nation's full-time public four-year college students), those numbers drop to 7.4 percent and 7 percent, respectively. That's because California jacked its prices for public four-year colleges a whopping 21 percent this year. Hence the student protests last spring.

Here are the highlights:

Too Much Trash? Get Rid of the Trashcans

New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority is trying a counterintuitive approach to cleaning up the subway by removing trash cans from some of its dirtiest stations. According to the New York Times, a subway stop in Queens and another in Greenwich Village have been entirely without trashcans for the last two weeks:

The idea is to reduce the load on the authority’s overtaxed garbage crew, which is struggling to complete its daily rounds of clearing out 40 tons of trash from the system.

But it also offers a novel experiment: will New Yorkers stop throwing things away in the subway if there is no place to put them?

Results have so far been mixed. While one bin-less station appeared relatively clean to a Times reporter, the experiment is obviously having some knock-on effects.

Bring Your Questions for Brandwashed Author Martin Lindstrom

Though the exact percentage is debatable, the fact is that the vast majority of U.S. GDP is made up of personal consumption. The American consumer doesn't just drive the U.S. economy, for decades he's been driving the global one as well. Though that dynamic is slowly changing as Americans cut back on just about everything we buy, for the better part of the last 60 years, the U.S. consumer has been king. And from this has sprung a massive marketing and advertising industry coldly focused on a singular goal: getting us to buy as much stuff as they possibly can.

In his new book Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, marketing guru Martin Lindstrom trains a bright light on his own industry to uncover all the unsavory things that marketers do to subtly, or not so subtly, influence our buying habits. Lindstrom's agreed to answer your questions, so fire away in the comments section. As always, we'll post his replies in due course.

Goldman Sachs Stumbles: The End of the "Vampire Squid"?

A few years ago, a friend of mine who used to work on Wall Street told me that the only stock anyone needed to own was Goldman Sachs. He was of course half-joking (I sure hope this wasn't the advice he was giving clients), but his point was clear: whatever price increases were happening out in the world, whatever profits were there for the taking, no matter the market, you could be fairly certain that Goldman was on the scene.

The image of Goldman Sachs as some sort of omnivorous, ever-present beast was perpetuated by Matt Taibbi in his 2010 Rolling Stone article, in which he dubbed the firm "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money." And that was just the second sentence.

It would appear that the squid has since had a few of its tentacles lopped off, or at least been shrunken down to size. For only the second time since it went public in 1999, Goldman Sachs has posted a quarterly loss.

Are We Really Losing 1% of GDP Due to Poor Health? Also, a Poll on Polling

We've been writing a lot about obesity recently. First, it was this study about projected future obesity rates, then we covered Denmark's saturated fat tax, which Steve Sexton then criticized for being inefficient. So, if you're tired of reading fat-related posts on our blog, I get it. But as long as reports like this one from Gallup keep coming out, we're going to keep writing about them, especially when they include so many interesting conversation points.

Here are the top-line numbers:

About 86% of full-time American workers are above normal weight or have at least one chronic condition. These workers miss a combined estimate of 450 million more days of work each year than their healthy counterparts, resulting in an estimated cost of more than $153 billion in lost productivity per year. That's roughly 1% of GDP.

How Will Sean Payton's Injury Affect the Saints' Offense?

On Sunday, in a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton tore his MCL and fractured his knee when one of his own players was tackled out of bounds and crashed into him on the sideline. You can watch the replay here if you have a thing for gruesome knee injuries.

Payton is the rare NFL head coach who still calls the offensive plays, so the injury presented a pretty big problem for the Saints, especially since it happened early in the first quarter. Rather than going to the training room, Payton gutted it out on the sideline and kept calling plays while trainers tended to his knee. By halftime though, with the Saints trailing 20-10, Payton had had enough and passed play-calling duties over to his offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael.

It's tough to say what effect the injury had on the Saints' offense Sunday; they lost 26-20. By the numbers, the Saints' output was fairly even through the first to second half.

More Research on Why Nice Guys Lose

A couple months ago, we wrote about a study by researchers from Notre Dame and Cornell that showed how “agreeableness” negatively affects monetary earnings, particularly for men. Translation: it pays to be a jerk. Well, not exactly, but it apparently doesn't pay to be overly nice.

Now, a recent paper from a host of researchers (from Stanford, Northwestern and Carnegie Mellon) fleshes out this notion by showing why nice guys who watch out for others generally fail to become leaders. The study looks at how contributing to the public good (i.e. taking care of outsiders, and even others in a group setting) influences a person's status on two critical dimensions of leadership: prestige and dominance. People who shared resources with their group were seen as prestigious, while those who protected their resources and even sought to deprive members of another group were seen as dominant.

How the Internet Is Restoring the Market for Hitchhiking

In our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, "Where Have All the Hitchhikers Gone," we looked at how hitchhiking is essentially a market. Specifically, as Levitt puts it, it's a "matching market" where supply (a person who's willing to give a ride) matches up with demand (a person who needs a ride) in natural equilibrium. Over time, that equilibrium, as facilitated by people thumbing on the sides of roads, eventually vanished.

But the supply remained; actually it increased -- as the average number of passengers in a car during the work commute went from 1.3 in 1977, to 1.1 today. (Click here for more data.) And as gas prices have steadily risen, and the economy flat-lined, the demand has seemingly come back. Enter the Internet as the new facilitator.

As many of you have pointed out in emails and comments, an entire online ecosystem of ride-sharing ventures has cropped up in the last few years. So here are the highlights:

Why Do Only Top MBA Programs Practice Grade Non-Disclosure?

Last spring while I was finishing my fellowship at Columbia Business School, much of the student body was busy trying to overturn the school's grade disclosure policy. Back then, Columbia was one of the few top MBA programs that did not practice grade non-disclosure, meaning recruiters were allowed to ask Columbia students about their grades. By the end of the year, the issue had passed a student referendum, and this semester Columbia became the latest business school to have a grade non-disclosure policy, which encourages students not to disclose their grades to employers until they've been hired.

Grade non-disclosure policies are a quirk of MBA programs. You won't find them in medical or law school. In fact, the only place you do find them is among top business schools. Of the 15 most selective MBA programs, 9 of them have some form of a grade non-disclosure policy. But of the schools ranked from 20 to 50, none do.

A new paper from a pair of Wharton economists examines why this is.