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One Possible Explanation for the January Stock-Market Fall

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Red Jahncke argues that the recent drop in U.S. stock markets may be a delayed response to a tax change:

In late 2012, investors sold huge amounts of investments with long-term capital gains to take advantage of the expiring 15% “Bush” long-term capital-gains tax rate before the current 23.8% rate for higher-income investors took effect on Jan. 1, 2013. These sales left investors with few unrealized long-term gains going into 2013.

Instead, as the market surged, investors’ new gains were held mostly in short-term positions, which they were loath to sell given that short-term gains are taxed at ordinary income-tax rates (39.6% for high earners). With this inhibition there was less sales pressure last year, and for that reason the market may have risen more than it would have otherwise. Indeed, last year’s 30% market gain exceeded most analysts’ predictions.

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More Talk About Why We Don’t Wear Hats Anymore

From Babak Givi, an assistant professor at NYU’s Dept. of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery:

Dear Freakonomicers,

I am writing in regards to your January 9th podcast ["Are We Ready to Legalize Drugs? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions"] and the question about hats. Why people used to wear hats? Stephen made a comment about religious roots of hats and Steven talked about fashion.

I am sure there are links with both, but I would like to note that for the most of the human history, hats were protective garments. We are not spending as much time as we used to out in the open environment. If you spend most of the time outside, you will soon realize that similar to the rest of your body, you have to protect your head from the sun, wind, rain, or snow; but most importantly from the sun. Even now, when we spend most of our time inside our manmade structures, skin cancers are the most common type of cancer in humans. Furthermore, the most common area for developing skin cancers is head and neck, which happens to be the most exposed area of human body, as long as you are not a strict nudist. The effects of ultraviolet rays on developing skin cancers is beyond doubt.  Lightly pigmented skins are extremely sensitive to the sun and with enough exposure most people will develop skin cancers. Hats, similar to the rest of clothing items, protect our skin. In addition, less sunlight will delay development and progression of cataracts (point for wide brim hats). I think our ancestors had developed the habit of wearing hats out of necessity not fashion or religion. But of course through the millennia, we start adding religious, fashion, and symbolic meanings to wearing hats.

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Why Do We Vote? So We Can Tell People We Voted

We once wrote about reasons to not vote, at least from an economist’s perspective. Since a single vote almost never alters an outcome, what’s in it for the voter?

If a given citizen doesn’t stand a chance of having her vote affect the outcome, why does she bother? In Switzerland, as in the U.S., “there exists a fairly strong social norm that a good citizen should go to the polls,” [Patricia] Funk writes. “As long as poll-voting was the only option, there was an incentive (or pressure) to go to the polls only to be seen handing in the vote. The motivation could be hope for social esteem, benefits from being perceived as a cooperator or just the avoidance of informal sanctions. Since in small communities, people know each other better and gossip about who fulfills civic duties and who doesn’t, the benefits of norm adherence were particularly high in this type of community.”

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Gossip and the Founding Fathers

In light of our recent podcast “Everybody Gossips (and That’s a Good Thing),” we heard from David Head, an assistant professor of  history at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama:

I just listened to the podcast on gossip and as it happens my class on the early American republic will be reading the following article on political gossip for next week:

Joanne B. Freeman, “Slander, Poison, Whispers, and Fame: Jefferson’s ‘Anas’ and Political Gossip in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic, 15 (1995), 25-57.

Have you heard of it? Freeman shows that not only were the founders inveterate gossips but that gossip was crucial to the formation of political parties as like-minded founders, such as Jefferson and Madison, attempted to marshal support to protect themselves and the country from their enemies, such as Hamilton.

What fun it would have been to include this in our episode! Its thesis strengthens the point made in the podcast by Nick Denton of Gawker: Read More »



What’s the “Best” Exercise?: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest podcast is called “What’s the ‘Best’ Exercise?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) Exercise is always on a lot of people’s minds around this time of year, what with all those resolutions just waiting to be broken …

By “best,” we really mean “most efficient,” since people who don’t exercise — and that’s roughly 80 percent of us – often blame lack of time. (The American College of Sports Medicine recommends about thirty minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week; here are its guidelines.)  Read More »



How to Control Runaway Entitlement Spending

At the Becker-Posner blog, Richard Posner offers some ideas for amending the entitlements programs that are “threatening the long-term solvency of the federal government”:

Which leads me to the first of the only two practical ideas that occur to me for slowing the increase in entitlement expenditures relative to the size of the economy: a shift in emphasis in medical research from length of life to ability to live independently. Independent living means living without home care (whether by relatives, thus taking time from them that they could use more productively in other activities, including paid employment, or by paid care—paid by the government in many cases) and being able—and wanting—to work. Independent living can be fostered by focusing medical research on problems of vision, musculoskeletal problems (which impair mobility), obesity, and dementia, in preference to research on curing and preventing cancer, heart disease, and stroke. 

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What Do You Want to Know About Bitcoin? And Do You Really Care?

We get a lot of e-mails with requests/suggestions for podcast and writing topics. These days, the most popular request by far is for  Bitcoin. I am still not sure we’ll do it but I’m thinking about it. If so, what do you want to know? Please be specific. Also: do you really care? It strikes me that, at the moment, Bitcoin is one of those things that a small number of people care about hugely but that most people couldn’t care less. (Freakonomics readers aren’t, of course, “most people.”) The rapid spikes and drops in value of course invites lots of news coverage but that is among the least-interesting aspects of a cryptocurrency, isn’t it?



The Non-Profit Journalism Keeps Coming

As the economics of high-end journalism continue to worsen, it is interesting — and, if you’re a fan of journalism, encouraging — to see how much non-profit journalism is being created. NPR is of course the most famous model but there’s also ProPublica, Pierre Omidyar‘s First Look Media, and a lot of other foundation- and philanthropist-funded projects.

Add to this list The Marshall Project, a “not-for-profit, non-partisan news organization dedicated to covering America’s criminal justice system.” It’s being launched by Neil Barsky, a former journalist, hedge-funder, and most recently film director. (He’s also a friend of mine, but don’t hold that against him.)

Here’s the rest of the Marshall Project’s mission statement: Read More »