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An Alternative to Democracy?

With the U.S. presidential election nearly here, everyone seems to have politics on their mind.  Unlike most people, economists tend to have an indifference towards voting.  The way economists see it, the chances of an individual’s vote influencing an election outcome is vanishingly small, so unless it is fun to vote, it doesn’t make much sense to do so.  On top of that, there are a number of theoretical results, most famously Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, which highlight how difficult it is to design political systems/voting mechanisms that reliably aggregate the preferences of the electorate.

Mostly, these theoretical explorations into the virtues and vices of democracy leave me yawning.

Last spring, however, my colleague Glen Weyl mentioned an idea along these lines that was so simple and elegant that I was amazed no one had ever thought of it before.  In Glen’s voting mechanism, every voter can vote as many times as he or she likes.  The catch, however, is that you have to pay each time you vote, and the amount you have to pay is a function of the square of the number of votes you cast.  Read More »



One More Thing to Worry About: Underfunded Public Pensions

If there is one thing that politicians love to do it’s to promise people things now and not worry about how we will pay for those promises until sometime far into the future, when some other politician is on the hook to balance the budget. 

We see this all the time in the form of budget deficits in the federal government, and also with the accounting tricks used on the Social Security Trust Fund.

These sorts of shenanigans get less press at the state and local level because many state and local governments are required to have balanced budgets (this paper by my thesis adviser Jim Poterba lays out some of the details).  There are, of course, ways for states to get around the balanced-budget provisions.  The method that currently casts the greatest shadow over the future is underfunded pensions.  State governments promise generous retirement packages to state employees, but use accounting tricks to avoid recognizing the full value of what taxpayers will owe in the future to cover those debts. Read More »



When A Daughter Dies

Not too long ago, I wrote about my sister Linda, who passed away this summer.

Nobody could love a daughter more than my father Michael loved Linda. 

My father (who is a doctor) was realistic from the start about what modern medicine might be able to do to save his precious daughter from cancer.  Even with those low expectations, he was shocked at how impotent — and actually counterproductive — her interactions with the medical system turned out to be.

Here, in his own words, is my father’s poignant account of my sister’s experience with medical care. Read More »



Al Roth Takes Home the Nobel Prize

Hearty congratulations to Harvard economist Al Roth (now at Stanford), whose work has been featured on many occasions here at the Freakonomics blog!

When I talk about economists, one of the greatest compliments I give is to say that they changed the way people think about the world.  Al Roth definitely fits into that category.  The type of economics he is best known for is what is called “Market Design.”  Essentially, it means bringing market-type thinking to areas in which historically non-market allocation mechanisms have been used.  A few examples of the areas Roth has explored are matching fledgling doctors to hospitals for their residency, matching students to public schools in school choice programs, and matching kidney donors with those who need a kidney.

I know Roth changed my thinking because the first time I read Roth’s work in this area I had a strong reaction: this isn’t really economics. Read More »



Linda Levitt Jines, 1962-2012

It is with great sorrow that I share the news that my dear sister Linda Levitt Jines passed away last month after a short but valiant battle with cancer.  She was fifty years old.

My very first instinct, as I sat down to try to eulogize Linda, was to call her to ask her to write it for me.  Pretty much all my life, when faced with something that called for just the right words, that is what I’ve always done. 

Most famously this happened when Dubner and I were halfway through writing a book that meandered from one topic to another and had no theme.  Between the publisher, Dubner, and me, we had generated a list of perhaps fifteen terrible titles before we ran out of ideas.  I knew with complete confidence that Linda would have the answer.  Read More »



The Miracle at Medinah

The Ryder Cup was about as exciting as golf can get. Down 10-6 going into the last day, the European team eked out a 14.5-13.5 victory.

The headline in USA Today reads “Europe Rallies for Miraculous Ryder Cup Win.” The Ryder Cup website calls it the “Miracle at Medinah.”

So how miraculous was the outcome from a statistical perspective?

Europe needed to win eight of twelve matches for a victory.  (If the teams tied, Europe got to keep the trophy, so it is considered a European win.)  Let’s assume that each of the pairings was an even match.  Then the likelihood that Europe wins after being down 10-6 after two days is given by the binomial distribution: what is the likelihood of at least 8 heads coming up if you flip a fair coin 12 times.

The answer is about 19 percent.

Not exactly the stuff of miracles, but fun nonetheless.



A Chance to Date One of The Most Eligible Bachelorettes in Chicago

We’ve had this blog for seven years.  This is the first time I have ever tried to use it play cupid.

Here’s the deal.  I have a close friend here in Chicago.  She is in her late twenties.  She is really smart. She has an extremely successful career.  She is incredibly pretty.

Here is a true story.  The first time my wife Jeannette met this friend, she was so shocked by my friend’s beauty that her jaw went slack, and she temporarily lost the ability to speak.  My wife later described her as the most beautiful woman she had ever seen in person.

Why, if she is so great, is she still single?  I don’t have a good explanation.  Partly, she works really hard so she doesn’t have that much opportunity to meet people.  Also, I suspect a lot of potential suitors are intimidated by her – I know I would have been.  She’s got a Ph.D. from a top university, she’s on top of the world professionally, she’s pretty. A man would need to be very self-confident to ask her out. Read More »



Help Wanted: Techno Superstars Looking to Work on Some Freakonomics-Inspired Start-ups in Chicago

I’ve got a lot of smart friends, and they come up with some pretty good ideas.  (I even have an idea myself once in a while!)

Occasionally, these ideas take the form of potential internet businesses.  Although we have incubated some interesting businesses up until now, there is too much talking and not enough doing.

It is time for that to change, and we want to open up  a little Chicago office to pursue these ideas.

We need some superhuman talent to make it a success. 

If you think you have what we are looking for, send a resume to stelios@greatestgood.com, and let’s get the fun started!