This Week in Corn Predictions: The USDA Got it Right (Almost)

We've been having some fun recently at the expense of people who like to predict things. In our hour-long Freakonomics Radio episode "The Folly of Prediction" -- which will be available as a podcast in the fall -- we showed that humans are lousy at predicting just about anything: the weather, the stock market, elections. In fact, even most experts are only nominally better than a coin flip at determining a future outcome. And yet there remains a huge demand for professional predictors and forecasters.

Earlier this week, Stephen Dubner and Kai Ryssdal chatted about this on the Freakonomics Radio segment on Marketplace. The question remains: "should bad predictions be punished?"

As mentioned in the segment, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's August crop yield report came out today. The result? Not bad actually. The corn yield forecast was revised downward by just 1.3% from its estimate last month. That's a considerable improvement over last year's big miss, when the August corn yield report had to be revised downward by almost 7%.

Should Bad Predictions Be Punished?

What do Wall Street forecasters and Romanian witches have in common? They usually get away, scot-free, with making bad predictions. Our world is awash in poor prediction -- but for some reason, we can't stop, even though accuracy rates often barely beat a coin toss.

But then there’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture's crop forecasting. Predictions covering a big crop like corn (U.S. farmers have planted the second largest crop since WWII this year) usually fall within five percent of the actual yield. So how do they do it? Every year, the U.S.D.A. sends thousands of enumerators into cornfields across the country where they inspect the plants, the conditions, and even "animal loss."

This week on Marketplace, Stephen J. Dubner and Kai Ryssdal talk about the supply and demand of predictions. You'll hear from Joseph Prusacki, the head of U.S.D.A's Statistics Division, who's gearing up for his first major crop report of 2011 (the street is already "sweating" it); Phil Friedrichs, who collects cornfield data for the USDA; and our trusted economist and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt.

On Payday, Watch Your Back

Another thing to add to the list of things to be paranoid about: your paycheck might kill you. Notre Dame economist William Evans, along with Timothy Moore from the University of Maryland, analyzed more than 75 million deaths in the U.S., and found something interesting.

On the first day of each month, the death rate goes up.

What to Do After a Dining Disaster?

Here’s the scene: a woman on New York’s Upper West Side walks into Le Pain Quotidien, a high-end café chain. She sits down, orders a salad. The salad arrives. The contents: a) leafy greens and b) an entire dead mouse. Two nearby customers, one of whom happened to be Stephen Dubner, saw the scene unfold.

Quitting Time

No one wants to be called a quitter. And absolutely no one wants to be the guy who tells other people to quit … except maybe Stephen Dubner. Today on Marketplace, Dubner explains the virtues of quitting to Tess Vigeland, making the case that people don’t quit enough.

How Much Do Parents Really Matter?

Kai Ryssdal and Stephen Dubner are both dads. They both hope to have an impact on the lives of their children. But these hopes exist in the face of data questioning how much parents really matter. This data comes, in part, from economists, who are asking bold questions like what happens when we randomly assign children to families? And why are college-educated mothers spending more time away from work, chauffering their kids around? Today on Marketplace, the answers to these questions and a new approach to parenting, endorsed by Dubner's co-author Steve Levitt. Here's a hint: you need a comfy couch.

Here's where to find Marketplace on the radio near you.

The Daughter Test and Why Steve Levitt is Angry About the Online Poker Crackdown

As an economist, Steven Levitt says he has an underdeveloped moral compass. In the past, the University of Chicago professor and Freakonomics co-author has tricked colleagues into drinking cheap wine and opined that drug dealers in Sao Paulo would do a better job keeping communities safe.

But his moral compass went spinning when the U.S. recently cracked down on the top three online poker companies, resulting in 11 indictments. The federal government accused PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker of running their operations illegally, including paying banks to secretly process transactions.

“I think it makes no sense at all,” Levitt says. “Most things that are made illegal, everyone agrees on: homicide, theft--there’s a general agreement. And then there are these other activities that fall into a gray area. I think poker is so obviously on one side of the gray area relative to legality that it just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Levitt says he doesn’t usually get riled up over such issues, but then he realized why he got so angry: his daughter.

Take the Money and Run

NFL team owners are pitted against NFL players in what could be a $9 billion fight. This looming standoff is no game. The league has decided it wants a larger share of revenues, and the players don’t want to give in. As of this today, there’s a good chance the owners will lock the players […]

Painful Lessons

The nation is facing pain on many fronts -- financial, governmental, personal. So what do we know about how to deal with it, sell it and forget it? We'll ask a doctor, a hockey player and a governor for their tips.

What Makes a Donor Donate? A New Marketplace Podcast

In our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, we look at the economics of charity -- specifically, what works (and what doesn't) when trying to incentivize people to give. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

In Australia, Dick Smith’s electronics empire has afforded him enough success to be able to donate about 20 percent of his annual income to charity. But, he says, this kind of generosity is no longer the norm: