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More Sex Please, We’re Economists: A Q&A With Steve Landsburg

Steven Landsburg is not known for having temperate opinions. An economics professor at the University of Rochester and a prolific writer, Landsburg regularly raises provocative theories in his Slate column: women choke under pressure, e.g., or miserliness is a form of generosity. He is the author of the books Armchair Economist and Fair Play, which are in some ways direct forebears of Freakonomics.

His latest project is a typically brash book called More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics. We asked him to respond to some questions about the book, and he has done so. In the interest of disclosure, let me mention here that Landsburg reviewed Freakonomics in the Wall Street Journal when it was published, and it was the sort of review that makes you blush with happiness. But that, of course, is not why we’re running this Q&A. (Smile.)

Q: Many of the stories in your book rest on the idea that people should alter their personal welfare for the greater good — for instance, STD-free men should become more sexually active to give healthy women disease-free partners. In our society, is it possible to put such ideas into practice?

A: Sure. We put such ideas into practice all the time. We think that the owners of polluting factories should give up some of their personal welfare (i.e. their profits) for the greater good, and we convince them to do that via tradable emissions permits (when we’re being smart) or via clumsy regulations (when we’re being dumb). We think that professional thieves should give up some aspects of their personal welfare (i.e. their thievery) for the greater good, and we convince them to do that with the prospect of prison terms.

Our personal welfare is almost always in conflict with the greater good. When something exciting happens at the ballpark, everyone stands up to see better, and therefore nobody succeeds. At parties, everyone speaks loudly to be heard over everyone else, and therefore everyone goes home with a sore throat. The one great exception is the interaction among buyers and sellers in a competitive marketplace, where — for fairly subtle reasons — the price system aligns private and public interests perfectly. That’s a miraculous exception, but it is an exception. In most other areas, there’s room to improve people’s incentives.

One theme of More Sex is Safer Sex is that some of those disconnects between private and public interests are surprising and counterintuitive. Casual sex is one of those examples. If you are a recklessly promiscuous person with a high probability of HIV infection, you pollute the partner pool every time you jump into it — and you should be discouraged, just as any polluter should be discouraged. But the flip side of that is that if you are a very cautious person with a low probability of infection — and a low propensity to pass on any infection that you do have –then you improve the quality of the partner pool every time you jump into it. That’s the opposite of pollution, and it should be encouraged for exactly the same reasons that pollution should be discouraged.

Q: Do you work especially hard to come up with counterintuitive examples so that people will pay attention?

A: I like to emphasize the counterintuitive because I am convinced that counterintuitive truths are both enlightening and fun. If you could always rely on your common sense, there’d be no point in ever thinking about anything. When a thought experiment runs counter to your common sense, that’s when you’ve learned something. And usually you’ve had some fun along the way.

Q: You argue that jurors should be charged a penalty if they convict a defendant who is later exonerated. By that logic, do you think defense attorneys should refund some of the fees they collect from a defendant who is convicted?

A: Defendants and their attorneys are perfectly capable of negotiating any fee arrangements they want to, including refunds in the case of a conviction. It’s interesting to ask why we don’t often see that kind of contract, but if it’s not arising naturally I don’t see any reason to mandate it.

Jurors, by contrast, are in a very different position. Their compensation isn’t negotiated, and all of society depends on their doing a good job. Yet, as I point out in the book, jury service is almost the only activity I can think of where rewards are 100% divorced from performance. That’s got to be a recipe for disaster.

In the book, I talk about various ways we might spot jurors who are doing a bad job and punish them for it. Along the way, we’ll make the mistake of punishing a lot of jurors who don’t deserve it. That’s unfair, but it’s also okay. Nothing is more unfair than to send an innocent person to jail, or to acquit a guilty murderer who goes out and kills again. If we can make a dent in that kind of unfairness by being occasionally unfair to jurors, that’s a trade-off I can live with.

Q: In your argument for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, you suggest that juries should be made aware of all prior convictions on a defendant’s record,. But criminal law restricts admissibility of prior convictions since a past conviction may unfairly bias a jury. Who’s right?

A: I am, of course. Don’t forget that the criminal law is a product of evolution, and evolution is clumsy. Surely an intelligent designer could do a much better job. (Though equally surely, a slightly less intelligent designer could do a disastrously worse job.) Take, for example, the size of the jury. Why twelve? To what optimization problem is that the solution? And for goodness’s sake, why doesn’t it adjust to changes in economic conditions? Surely we should have larger juries in times of high unemployment!

There is no good theoretical reason to believe that the legal system should evolve into anything sensible, and therefore there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t try to envision a better one.

Q: Your book contains several counterarguments and responses from readers to your Slate columns. What have you heard from any of these readers since the book came out?

A: The response has really been very gratifying. I’ve had scads of email from delighted readers, including several with suggestions for future books and columns. So far nobody has poked any major holes in anything, probably because most of the book was vetted in advance by the dozens of world-class hole-pokers I count as friends.

Q: We’ve blogged on this site quite a bit about the issue of organ donation. You are strongly in favor of a free-market solution for kidneys. What is the likelihood that this will actually happen in the U.S. anytime soon? Do you think the public is more inclined to do so than medical and government officials?

A: I’m not sure I’m terribly good at intuiting the inclinations of the public. For just one example, there seems to be something like a widespread consensus that there’s something discomforting about reproductive cloning, though I cannot for the life of me figure out why people feel that way. Nor can I figure out why anyone would balk at a market solution to the organ shortage. Thousands of people die each year for lack of a healthy kidney, while hundreds of millions walk around with spare kidneys they’re unlikely to need. That’s nuts. I agree with you guys that most people can probably see that it’s nuts. For some reason, most of those people seem reluctant to embrace the one mechanism — the market — that can actually solve this kind of problem.

Q: You argue that miserliness is equitable to charitable contributions in the net use of resources, while giving more to one single charity is better than giving less to different charities. What is your personal approach to charitable contributions ( i.e., how much do you give, and to whom)?

A: Miserliness is equivalent to charity in the sense that both the miser and the philanthropist forego consumption, which makes more goods available to others. If you give your money away, someone else gets to eat better. If, instead, you squirrel your money under your mattress, it’s still true that someone else gets to eat better, because whatever you’re not eating is available to someone else. There’s a complicated chain of events in between — you hoard money, which drives down the price level, which lowers the price of food, which allows someone somewhere to buy more food — but you don’t have to follow that whole chain to know that if you eat less, there’s more for someone else.

So if you want to be charitable, all you have to do is hoard your money, or for that matter burn it. But that’s not the best way to be charitable, because you can’t control who gets the benefits. Miserliness is like a random act of kindness; effective philanthropy is about directed acts of kindness. And I argue in the book that a philanthropist who really cares about helping others will usually pick a single charity and target his giving to that one charity. If 100 children are dying of rickets and another 100 are dying of scurvy and you have enough funds to save two children, there’s no particular reason to save one of each; you might as well give your entire contribution to either the Rickets Foundation or the Scurvy Foundation. Either way, you’ve saved two children. And if you have even the slightest inkling that one of those charities might be more effective than the other, then that’s where both your dollars should go.

It took me a long time to fully understand that argument, so I’m sympathetic to the fact that readers often find it hard to swallow. In the book, I’ve tried to answer all the objections that I myself raised when I first started thinking about this.

I think I’ll decline to comment on the details of my own giving, for the same reason that I’d decline to comment if you asked me about what I had for breakfast this morning: I have nothing interesting to say about my particular preferences. It’s general principles, not individual eccentricities, that are really important.