In the first chapter of our new book, Think Like a Freak, we recount an ill-fated interaction that Dubner and I had with David Cameron shortly before he was elected Prime Minister of the U.K. (In a nutshell, we joked with Cameron about applying the same principles he espoused for health care to automobiles; it turns out you don’t joke with Prime Ministers!)
That story has riled up some people, including an economics blogger named Noah Smith, who rails on us and defends the NHS.
I should start by saying I have nothing in particular against the NHS, and I also would be the last one to ever defend the U.S. system. Anyone who has ever heard me talk about Obamacare knows I am no fan of it, and I never have been.
Our latest Freakonomics Radio onMarketplace podcast is called “Star-Spangled Banter?”
(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
In honor of the forthcoming Independence Day, we take a look at one British tradition that the U.S. might do well to consider adopting: Prime Minister's Questions (PMQ's), the weekly Parliamentary session in which the PM goes before the House of Commons to field queries from the Opposition as well as his own party.
I had the good fortune to attend PMQ's on a couple of recent visits to London. One of the sessions was particularly woolly -- in part because Prime Minister David Cameron called Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls a "muttering idiot" (a comment that Cameron was duly asked to withdraw as it was unParliamentary) and also because Cameron had just returned from a G8/NATO summit in Chicago, which provided an extra hour or so of substantial back-and-forthing between the PM, Opposition Leader Ed Miliband, and dozens of MP's. (Additionally, Greece was cratering, perhaps along with the Euro, and the U.K. had just entered its second recession -- so there was plenty to whinge about on all sides of the aisle.)
It is quite a piece of theater to watch (and yes, it is largely theater), but it also struck me that PMQ's provide the British government and especially the British electorate an opportunity to have what the American government and electorate do not currently have: a real and real-time dialogue (on national television, and on C-SPAN in the U.S.) between members of opposing parties as well as the country's political leader.
Earlier this year, the structure of an enzyme in an HIV-related monkey virus was solved in three weeks by internet gamers. It was a feel-good victory of human intelligence over disease, and a reminder of the awesome power of the internet.
The New York Times published a similar article a few days ago. In a slightly controversial move, British spy agency Government Communications Headquarters posted a puzzle online and directed people who solved it to apply for a job at GCHQ. It’s reminiscent of the Bruce Willis movie Mercury Rising and seems like an elegant solution to a hiring problem - the GCHQ can't offer as much money to their cryptographers as private firms. Also, code breaking skills can't be that easy to find. The Times reports on what happens after you break the code:
“So you did it,” says the congratulatory message. “Now this is where it gets interesting. Could you use your skills and ingenuity to combat terrorism and cyberthreats? As one of our experts, you’ll help protect our nation’s security and the lives of thousands.” Those interested are then invited to submit a formal job application, leading to interviews for a total of 35 jobs next spring.
A new study in the Journal of Clinical Pathology from Ian Proctor, Vijay Sharma, Mohammad KoshZaban and Alison Winstanley, reveals doctor biases towards smoking and smokers. The researchers looked at 2,128 death certificates, and 236 postmortems issued at a large London teaching hospital between 2003 and 2009. They found that while alcohol was listed as a major contributor to 57.4 percent of death certificates, smoking was only listed as a cause of death in .5 percent of cases, and usually a secondary cause at that. Considering that 279 of those deaths included either lung cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease -- that's a bit strange.
This study serves as a bellwether of the western world’s campaign to stop smoking. Cigarette packages in the UK carry punitive phrases such as “smokers die younger,” and “smoking can cause a slow and painful death.” More recently, every cigarette pack has been required to carry a graphic image as well: pictures of black lung, throat cancer, and even a corpse. Scarier messages and pictures are coming to the U.S. too. There’s no doubt that our attitudes towards smoking have changed immensely; so drastically, in fact, that the authors conclude that doctors would rather lie and spare a family the eternal shame of having a loved-one remembered as a smoking bandit: