Is Uber Making the Taxi Market More Efficient?

The Economist analyzes the microeconomics of Uber’s controversial “surge” pricing model, in which users are charged significantly higher prices during high-demand times:

There is some evidence Uber’s surge pricing is improving taxi markets. The firm says drivers are sensitive to price, so that the temptation to earn more is getting more Uber drivers onto the roads at antisocial hours. In San Francisco the number of private cars for hire has shot up, Uber says. This suggests surge pricing has encouraged the number of taxis to vary with demand, with the market getting bigger during peak hours.

However, the inflexibility of Uber’s matchmaking fee, a fixed 20% of the fare, means that it may fail to optimize the matching of demand and supply. In quiet times, when fares are low, it may work well. Suppose it links lots of potential passengers willing to pay $20 for a journey with drivers happy to travel for $15. A 20% ($4) fee leaves both sides content. But now imagine a Friday night, with punters willing to pay $100 for a ride, and drivers happy to take $90: there should be scope for a deal, but Uber’s $20 fee means such journeys won’t happen.

Read More »



Bring Your Think Like a Freak Questions for Levitt and Dubner

On May 12, Levitt and I will publish our third book, Think Like a Freak. We cannot wait for you to read it. Here’s how the publisher describes it:

The New York Times-bestselling Freakonomics changed the way we see the world, exposing the hidden side of just about everything. Then came Super-Freakonomics, a documentary film, an award-winning podcast, and more.

Now, with Think Like a Freak, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have written their most revolutionary book yet. With their trademark blend of captivating storytelling and unconventional analysis, they take us inside their thought process and teach us all to think a bit more productively, more creatively, more rationally—to think, that is, like a Freak.

Levitt and Dubner offer a blueprint for an entirely new way to solve problems, whether your interest lies in minor lifehacks or major global reforms. As always, no topic is off-limits. They range from business to philanthropy to sports to politics, all with the goal of retraining your brain. Along the way, you’ll learn the secrets of a Japanese hot-dog-eating champion, the reason an Australian doctor swallowed a batch of dangerous bacteria, and why Nigerian e-mail scammers make a point of saying they’re from Nigeria.

You can read more about the book, check out our tour dates, and of course preorder it: the book will come in all formats including e-book, audio, large-print, and in translation around the world. We will also start up our fee-signed-bookplate-mailing program so that you can get your books autographed.

In the meantime, how about a Freakonomics Radio FAQ episode about the new book? Use the comments section below to ask us anything you want. Here’s the book’s Table of Contents to get you started … Read More »



Does the Absence of Cash Help Cut Crime?

A new working paper (abstract; ungated PDF not available) by Richard Wright, Erdal Tekin, Volkan Topalli, Chandler McClellan, Timothy Dickinson, and Richard Rosenfeld analyzes the effects of delivering welfare benefits via Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) instead of checks (which are easily converted to crime-fueling cash):

It has been long recognized that cash plays a critical role in fueling street crime due to its liquidity and transactional anonymity. In poor neighborhoods where street offenses are concentrated, a significant source of circulating cash stems from public assistance or welfare payments. In the 1990s, the Federal government mandated individual states to convert the delivery of their welfare benefits from paper checks to an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system, whereby recipients received and expended their funds through debit cards. In this paper, we examine whether the reduction in the circulation of cash on the streets associated with EBT implementation had an effect on crime. To address this question, we exploit the variation in the timing of the EBT implementation across Missouri counties. Our results indicate that the EBT program had a negative and significant effect on the overall crime rate as well as burglary, assault, and larceny. According to our point estimates, the overall crime rate decreased by 9.8 percent in response to the EBT program. We also find a negative effect on arrests, especially those associated with non-drug offenses. EBT implementation had no effect on rape, a crime that is unlikely to be motivated by the acquisition of cash. Interestingly, the significant drop in crime in the United States over several decades has coincided with a period of steady decline in the proportion of financial transactions involving cash. In that sense, our findings serve as a fresh contribution to the important debate surrounding the factors underpinning the great American crime decline.



Black-Market Study Notes in Korea

We recently got an e-mail from a reader we’ll call C.:

I’m a professor at an English-language liberal arts college in Seoul, South Korea, where I teach Greco-Roman classics in translation. Compared to most any American school, the academic climate here is hyper-competitive, and my Korean students are studying machines who will do whatever it takes to get good marks. If you’re familiar with the insanity of Korean education, those are my students, the ones who’ve spent years in private tutoring academies 6 days a week, doing nothing but preparing for our admissions exam.

I just learned through the grapevine that some students who took my freshman core course on Western Civ. are selling their notes, study guides, and reconstructed versions of the exam. The prices they charge current freshmen vary, depending upon the grade the seller received from me. Students who did very well (A or A+) can charge $200 for their notes; students who received Bs can ask $120 to $150. Students with a B- or lower can’t find buyers.

Read More »



How to Make People Quit Smoking: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “How to Make People Quit Smoking.” (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, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) The gist: the war on cigarettes has been fairly successful in some places. But 1 billion humans still smoke — so what comes next?

In the U.S., roughly 70 percent of smokers say they want to quit. But when they try, some 90 percent of them fail. So what does get people to smoke less? Something must be working: the smoking rate in the U.S. has fallen by more than half.

Kenneth Warner, an economist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, has been doing tobacco-policy research since the 1970’s. One of the most powerful smoking deterrents, he says, is making cigarettes more expensive. Read More »



Think Like a Freak: Our New Book Out on May 13

Good news (for us at least): our new book is done! It’s called Think Like a Freak. It will be published on May 13; but you can pre-order now on Amazon.com, B&N.com, iTunes, or any of your finer online bookshops.

Think Like a Freak is, like our two earlier books, a blend of storytelling and data. But Think has a slightly different mission than Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics. Here’s how we explain it in the first chapter:

The first two books were rarely prescriptive. For the most part, we simply used data to tell stories we found interesting, shining a light on parts of society that often lay in shadow. This book steps out of the shadows and tries to offer some advice that may occasionally be useful, whether you are interested in minor lifehacks or major global reforms.

Although we tell a million stories in Think,  the emphasis is usually on problem-solving:

It strikes us that in recent years, the idea has arisen that there is a “right” way to think about solving a given problem and of course a “wrong” way too. This inevitably leads to a lot of shouting—and, sadly, a lot of unsolved problems. Can this situation be improved upon? We hope so. We’d like to bury the idea that there’s a right way and a wrong way, a smart way and a foolish way, a red way and a blue way. The modern world demands that we all think a bit more productively, more creatively, more rationally; that we think from a different angle, with a different set of muscles, with a different set of expectations; that we think with neither fear nor favor, with neither blind optimism nor sour skepticism. That we think like—ahem—a Freak.

Read More »



Why Does Airport Pickup Cost More?

We are arranging a car to take us from our flat to Heathrow Airport early Saturday morning, then return us on Monday evening.  The price going to the airport is ₤28, the price returning is ₤38.  Why the difference?

One possibility is cost-based price discrimination: the driver may have to wait at Heathrow, since the plane and retrieving our baggage may be delayed.  Another is that the prices are set to match the differential set by metered taxis to reflect waiting time for fares at Heathrow (although I would think that competition among car services would eliminate that differential).  I don’t see how this differential could arise from demand-based price discrimination; and neither of the other explanations seems very satisfying.

(HT: DA)



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 »



Why Everybody Who Doesn’t Hate Bitcoin Loves It: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

After being bombarded by email requests for months, Freakonomics Radio has finally caved and made an episode about Bitcoin. It’s called “Why Everybody Who Doesn’t Hate Bitcoin Loves It.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) The gist: thinking of Bitcoin as just a digital currency is like thinking about the Internet as just e-mail. Its potential is much more exciting than that.

Bitcoin is often described as “virtual gold” — as well as everything from a “bubble” to a “Ponzi scheme” to “a haven for individuals to buy black market items.” But what excites some people, like Silicon Valley veteran Marc Andreessen, is Bitcoin’s potential as a new technology that could underlie any number of transactions, well beyond the simple swapping of currency. Read More »



Dalton Conley Answers Your “Parentology” Questions

Last week, we solicited your questions for Dalton Conley, NYU sociologist, father, and author of Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask. Below you will find his very interesting answers, including his thoughts whether you should stay home with your kids, how divorce affects child outcomes, and the old question of nature vs. nurture. Thanks to Dalton — and to all of you for your excellent questions.

Q. Why should we consider your limited sample size “study” to be anything more than anecdotal? How do you justify it as “science” and not simply “story telling”? –Matti

A. As Dubner and Levitt of Freakonomics did in their fabulous book, my accounts of my “do(n’t) try this at home” parenting interventions—bribing my kids to do math, not teaching them to decode words on the page, exposing them to sewage to build up their immune systems and so forth—are meant to be a way in to talk about the existing research that is based on large samples, randomized controlled trials and cutting-edge econometric analysis.  But would you rather read pages about whether or not the exclusion restriction is violated in a particular instrumental variable model of divorce? Or relegate that to endnotes so that you can hear about how my crazy family lived—like the Isaac Bashevis Singer tale—with a house full of animals to prevent childhood allergies?  Ok, maybe don’t answer that. Read More »