Search the Site

Freakonomics

Do Ceasefires Kill?

When violent conflicts erupt, the international community inevitably calls for a cease-fire.  But is it possible these ceasefires actually worsen later violence?  Yes, according to John A. Stevenson, a political science doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago.  Here’s an excerpt of Stevenson’s recent article for Slate:

My research on all 174 of the internationally recognized new states that have emerged since 1900 and scores of mass killings reveals that international involvement to temporarily address the symptoms of the violence—the mass death of civilians—increases the likelihood of greater violence and destruction. That is because cease-fires do nothing to eliminate the root causes of violence against civilians. Instead, both sides use the pause in killing to solicit diplomatic and military aid while planning and preparing their next wave of attacks.

According to the 2012 Human Security Report, between 1950 and 2004, 62 percent of cease-fires succeeded with no resumption of conflict in the next five years. The success of two-thirds of cease-fires would seem to support their use. Yet, in the civil wars that begin in new or young states, cease-fires typically succeed only after many that do not. In the interim, the belligerents busy themselves rooting out or killing their civilian rivals.

(HT: The Daily Dish)

2/21/14

An Animated Guide to the Economics of Sex

You may have detected a theme in our three most recent podcasts: “Reasons to Not Be Ugly,” “What You Don’t Know About Online Dating,” and “Why Marry? (Part 1).” If any of this interests you in the least, you should also check out an animated video on the economics of sex from The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture:

2/19/14

Diversity in Research

A new NBER paper by Richard B. Freeman and Wei Huang looks at the ethnic diversity of research collaborators. They find that papers with more authors in more locations tend to be cited more:

This study examines the ethnic identify of the authors of over 1.5 million scientific papers written solely in the US from 1985 to 2008. In this period the proportion of US-based authors with English and European names fell while the proportion of US-based authors with names from China and other developing countries increased. The evidence shows that persons of similar ethnicity co- author together more frequently than can be explained by chance given their proportions in the population of authors. This homophily in research collaborations is associated with weaker scientific contributions. Researchers with weaker past publication records are more likely to write with members of ethnicity than other researchers. Papers with greater homophily tend to be published in lower impact journals and to receive fewer citations than others, even holding fixed the previous publishing performance of the authors. Going beyond ethnic homophily, we find that papers with more authors in more locations and with longer lists of references tend to be published in relatively high impact journals and to receive more citations than other papers. These findings and those on homophily suggest that diversity in inputs into papers leads to greater contributions to science, as measured by impact factors and citations.

2/19/14

Happiness and Marriage

Last week’s podcast was “Why Marry, Part 1“; Part 2 will be released tomorrow (well, we usually release new episodes around midnight, so depending on where you live, Part 2 may be released today.) In Part 1, Justin Wolfers explained how marriage has shifted from a model of “production complementarities” to a model of hedonic marriage. Psychology professor Eli J. Finkel writes in The New York Times that we’re also in an age of “all-or-nothing” marriages — where expectations of happiness in marriage are high:

Consider, for example, that while the divorce rate has settled since the early 1980s at around 45 percent, even those marriages that have remained intact have generally become less satisfying. At the same time, consider the findings of a recent analysis, led by the University of Missouri researcher Christine M. Proulx, of 14 longitudinal studies between 1979 and 2002 that concerned marital quality and personal well-being. In addition to showing that marital quality uniformly predicts better personal well-being (unsurprisingly, happier marriages make happier people), the analysis revealed that this effect has become much stronger over time. The gap between the benefits of good and mediocre marriages has increased.

2/19/14

A Safe Hitchhiking Model?

Our podcast called “Where Have All the Hitchhikers Gone?” got a listener named Jenny O’Brien thinking. Here’s what she wrote us:

Here’s the back story: I live in a rural area in Northeast Kansas, where there is no bus, so I am forced to drive all the time.  After I heard your podcast, I started thinking about how to make hitchhiking safe, easy and reliable so I and other rural residents can use it as a public transportation option. I figured that all the hitchhiker really needed was a credential, way to signal her destination, and a system to record who she is riding with for safety.

O’Brien is now in the process of founding a ride-sharing service called Lawrence OnBoard:

2/14/14

Why Do People Fear G.M.O.’s?

Genetically modified food (or G.M.O.’s) continue to provoke heated debates about safety and labeling, even though scientific evidence indicates they’re safe.  Why?  A new article in Cosmos by David Ropeik explores the psychology behind people’s G.M.O. fears. Here is Ropeik on why man-made risks “feel” scarier than natural risks.

Beyond those heuristics, several specific emotional characteristics also make G.M.O.’s feel scary. These “fear factors” have been identified in pioneering research in risk perception by Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon, Baruch Fischhoff at Carnegie Mellon University, and others. You can hear them pop up as the young man explains his fears. “It’s just not natural to take the gene from one species and put it in another. It’s just not natural!”

2/14/14

Want to Win Olympic Medals? Fix Your Economy First

Steven Perlberg of Business Insider quotes a private research note by ConvergEx’s Nick Colas on the correlation between Olympic success and economic strength. “The Winter Olympics are a useful backdrop for case studies on the relationship between athletic performance and economic progress in emerging markets around the world,” writes Colas. “We’ve analyzed the medal count by country since the inaugural Winter Games in 1924, and indeed the results show that athletes rarely make it to the podium until their respective countries experience economic progress and stability.”  A few case studies from Colas’s note:

  • Japan’s Winter Olympic performance history tells a post-WWII recovery story.  The country competed in three Winter Games (1928, 1932 and 1936) before it won its first medal – silver – in 1956.  Japanese athletes didn’t earn any additional medals until the 1972 games, which the country hosted, and have been consistently making an appearance on the podium since 1980.  Japan won its first medal when it was taking off as an emerging economy and getting its economic act together following WWII.  Industrialism in the country picked up rapidly following the war, and the Olympic medal consistency coincided with the consumption boom in the 1980s. 

2/12/14

On Beauty and Biking

Our recent podcast “Reasons to Not Be Ugly” examined the beauty premium, as well as the “downside of ugly.”  A new paper by evolutionary biologist Erik Postma in Biology Letters highlights one more advantage of beauty: better endurance performance (in the form of faster cycling).  Bill Andrews of Discover‘s D-brief blog summarizes the study’s setup:

As the paper’s abstract explains, “Females often prefer to mate with high quality males, and one aspect of quality is physical performance.” So the more physically fit a human male is, the more human females might want to bang him. But how to test for this — and, specifically, how to test for this with the measure of physical performance being endurance, a trait not easily quantified?

2/12/14

“Flappy Bird” Demand

“Flappy Bird,” a popular mobile game, was taken down by its creator over the weekend. From CNN.com:

“Flappy Bird” has flown the coop.

The addictive game that soared to the top of iPhone and Android app downloads disappeared from app stores on Sunday, though players who already have it apparently can keep on flying.

…Although new players can no longer download “Flappy Bird,” the game remains playable for those who had already added it to their devices.

A secondary market has emerged yesterday, with entrepreneurs willing to part with their “Flappy Bird” installed mobile devices — for some pretty high prices:

2/11/14

It’s All in the Framing

Reader Steve Cebalt from Fort Wayne, Ind., sent in this picture, taken at a mega-supermarket near his home.  Here’s what he  had to say about it:

I was struck by the unapologetic, commanding, imperative, unexplanatory tone of that message. I liked it and thought it was very effective communication. Understand that this is a mega-supermarket, and that closing this exit imposes a major inconvenience on all shoppers and a hazard on elderly people who have to traverse to the opposite exit and then back to their car in blizzard conditions, so the closure of this exit door is a major issue for the store. Somehow I find the store’s imperative tone more satisfying than anything else they possibly could have said. But why does it intrigue me, and why do I find it more satisfying than the overwrought “customer-centric” tone of most similar communications I see? I have my theories, but I’d be interested in whether your readers have reactions. By the way, I discussed this with the store manager, who thought I was nuts. Not really. Actually, he said they gave that sign a lot of thought. He said the wording was very deliberate because they knew that closing that door was a major decision that affected customers significantly during the worst weather of the year…Safety? Mechanical failure? OSHA regulations? It could be a lot of things, right? 

Well, Freakonomics readers, what do you think of the language? And what’s your guess as to why the store opted to block off the door?

2/7/14

A Game Theorist on Jeopardy

A game-theory nerd named Arthur Chu has been kicking butt on Jeopardy. From The Atlantic Wire:

Due to Arthur’s newfangled shenanigans, Wednesday’s Jeopardy ended in a rare tie. In Final Jeopardy, the leading contestant typically wagers $1 more than double of the 2nd place contestant. If both answer correctly, then the person in the lead wins by that extra buck. But Arthur did not add the $1, wagering enough so that if he and Carolyn both answered correctly, they would tie. And that’s exactly what happened, as both moved on to the next round. He made the same move on Tuesday, as well, though he was the only contestant to answer correctly. “Interesting wager,” host Alex Trebek condescended, after the tie. 

While it seems strange, it’s actually the correct move to make, says The Final Wager blog, the brainchild of former Jeopardy winner Keith Williams that breaks down the proper mathematical wagering. Basically, the whole point of the game is to move on to the next round. Whether or not someone joins you is largely irrelevant. In addition, there’s a certain mind-game tactic that can make the trailing contestant bet an irrational number. While the numbers stand behind these ideas, Tuesday’s tie-targeting move was the first to do so all season, Williams said. “It’s really cool to see this happen,” he said. In fact, Arthur admitted to Williams that he got the idea from his videos.

2/7/14

The Inefficiency of Long Hours

Writing for The New Yorker, James Surowiecki explores the downside of working long hours:

The perplexing thing about the cult of overwork is that, as we’ve known for a while, long hours diminish both productivity and quality. Among industrial workers, overtime raises the rate of mistakes and safety mishaps; likewise, for knowledge workers fatigue and sleep-deprivation make it hard to perform at a high cognitive level. As [David] Solomon put it, past a certain point overworked people become “less efficient and less effective.” And the effects are cumulative. The bankers [Alexandra] Michel studied started to break down in their fourth year on the job. They suffered from depression, anxiety, and immune-system problems, and performance reviews showed that their creativity and judgment declined.

2/5/14

What Are the Odds of Twins Born in Different Years?

The following is a guest post by Louise Firth Campbell and Amram Shapiro, the authors (with Rosalind Wright) of The Book of Odds: From Lightning Strikes to Love at First Sight, the Odds of Everyday Life.

Rare news stories recur with surprising regularity — one of these annual stories is the birth of twins in two different years. 

You can see the appeal to editors. Babies are photogenic, especially twins. The symbolism of the New Year as a baby which ages to dotage by year end is an old one, a staple of thousands of New Year’s cards. There is an interesting apparent time tension in the story. Twins share a womb and genomes. Yet a few seconds separation in time of birth makes an apparent year’s worth of difference.[1]  This event is considered a rarity and only a handful of cases are reported in the press each year. This rarity makes it news, but is the event really as rare as it seems?

Let’s start with the news in 2013/2014. If the cases reported in the North American media, two in the U.S. and one in Canada, are the only cases, these events are rare indeed. There are about 4 million births a year in the U.S. That would suggest these events are as rare as 1 in 2 million. Someone visiting the Grand Canyon is more likely to die by falling off the edge (1 in 1.5 million).[2]  That doesn’t feel right to us.

2/5/14

Are Vaccines Red or Blue?

As the long-running debate continues over whether childhood vaccines cause autism, Yale professor Dan M. Kahan (who has appeared on Freakonomics Radio) takes a look at people’s attitudes toward vaccination. He dispels the myth that liberals are more likely to be anti-vaccine. From the abstract of his new paper:

This Report presents empirical evidence relevant to assessing the claim — reported widely in the media and other sources — that the public is growing increasingly anxious about the safety of childhood vaccinations. Based on survey and experimental methods (N = 2,316), the Report presents two principal findings: first, that vaccine risks are neither a matter of concern for the vast majority of the public nor an issue of contention among recognizable demographic, political, or cultural subgroups; and second, that ad hoc forms of risk communication that assert there is mounting resistance to childhood immunizations themselves pose a risk of creating misimpressions and arousing sensibilities that could culturally polarize the public and diminish motivation to cooperate with universal vaccination programs. Based on these findings the Report recommends that government agencies, public health professionals, and other constituents of the public health establishment (1) promote the use of valid and appropriately focused empirical methods for investigating vaccine-risk perceptions and formulating responsive risk communication strategies; (2) discourage ad hoc risk communication based on impressionistic or psychometrically invalid alternatives to these methods; (3) publicize the persistently high rates of childhood vaccination and high levels of public support for universal immunization in the U.S.; and (4) correct ad hoc communicators who misrepresent U.S. vaccination coverage and its relationship to the incidence of childhood diseases.

2/4/14

The Hitmen

New researchreported on by Mark Townsend in The Guardian, explores the habitual behavior of a small sample of British hitmen. Here’s Townsend’s summary:

The killers typically murder their targets on a street close to the victim’s home, although a significant proportion get cold feet or bungle the job, according to criminologists who examined 27 cases of contract killing between 1974 and 2013 committed by 36 men (including accomplices) and one woman.

…The reality of contract killing in Britain tended to be striking only in its mundanity, according to David Wilson, the university’s professor of criminology. He said: “Far from the media portrayal of hits being conducted inside smoky rooms, frequented by members of an organized crime gang, British hits were more usually carried out in the open, on pavements, sometimes as the target was out walking their dog, or going shopping, with passersby watching on in horror.”

Researchers found that the average cost of a hit was £15,180, with £100,000 being the highest and £200 the lowest amount paid. The average age of a hitman was 38 with the youngest aged 15 and the oldest 63.

1/31/14

How Drunk Is Too Drunk to Drive?

Our podcast “The Suicide Paradox” featured sociologist David Phillips, who spoke about his research on copycat suicides (a phenomenon he calls “the Werther Effect”). More recently, Philips has been studying drunk driving. Particularly, he’s been looking at drivers who are merely “buzzed” — with 0.01 percent blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) — and has found that the severity of life-threatening motor vehicle accidents increases significantly at BACs far lower than the current U.S. limit of 0.08 percent. In an email, Philips describes his latest research on buzzed drivers:

My current research, just published in Injury Prevention, shows that even minimally buzzed drivers (with BAC=0.01%) are 46% more likely to be blamed for an accident than are the sober drivers they collide with. This indicates that there is no safe level of alcohol for drivers: any amount of alcohol markedly increases the risk to drivers and their passengers. We reached this conclusion after examining an official, U.S. dataset of more than 570,000 car crashes. The findings have implications for drivers, passengers, police, judges, lawyers, insurance companies, advocacy organizations (like MADD) and regulatory agencies.

1/31/14

More Benefits of Gossip

Last week’s podcast, “Everybody Gossips (and That’s a Good Thing),” was all about the functions of gossip — good and bad. A new study (abstract; PDF) by Matthew FeinbergRobb Willer, and Michael Schultz looks at how gossip influences group cooperation. The researchers played a game with 216 participants, with groups investing in public goods. Participants were allowed to gossip in between rounds and exclude a participant from future rounds, if they chose. They found, as Nicholas DiFonzo said on our podcast, that gossip is great for policing and reforming selfish free riders. From The Telegraph:

Dr Matthew Feinberg, a researcher at Stanford University in the United State who co-wrote the study, said: “Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain co-operation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t.

“And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize untrustworthy members.”

The researchers found that when people learn about the behavior of others through gossip, they use the information to ally themselves with those deemed co-operative.

1/31/14

The Effects of For-Profit Microloans

In recent years, the effects of microcredit, particularly the high-interest loans offered by for-profit lenders, have been hotly debated.  New research (abstract; PDF) from Dean Karlan and two co-authors, which Karlan discussed on this blog as the project was getting underway, addresses the impacts of the for-profit loans offered by Compartamos Banco, Mexico’s largest micro lender.  Their findings:

Our results suggest modest but generally positive average effects on our sample of borrowers and prospective borrowers. We make five broad inferences. First, increasing access to microcredit increases borrowing and does not crowd-out other loans. Second, loans seem to be used for both investment—in particular for expanding previously existing businesses—and risk management (through a reduction in asset fire sales). Third, there is evidence of positive average impacts on business size, reliance on/need for aid, lack of depression, trust, and female decision making. Fourth, there is little evidence of negative average impacts: the only “negative” impacts are reductions in asset purchases and temptation goods, and these results have normatively positive or neutral interpretations as well. Fifth, the positive effects are not sweeping or transformative. Although some of the AIT effects are economically large, and all of the statistically significant effects are likely large in treatment-on-the-treated terms, we find statistically significant effects on only 12 of the 35 more-ultimate outcomes we evaluate, and no positive effects on household/business income, consumption, or wealth. 

1/30/14

Who Drinks More: Liberals or Conservatives?

Liberals, according to a new paper in the Journal of Wine Economics by Pavel A. Yakovlev and Walter P. Guessford of Duquesne University. The paper, “Alcohol Consumption and Political Ideology: What’s Party Got to Do with It?,” looks at alcohol consumption and voting patterns from 1952 to 2010 and finds that as states become more liberal politically, they drink more beer and spirits, although less wine. The abstract:

Recent research in psychology and sociology has established a connection between political beliefs and unhealthy behaviors such as excessive alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drug consumption. In this study, we estimate the relationship between political ideology and the demand for beer, wine, and spirits using a longitudinal panel of fifty U.S. states from 1952 to 2010. Controlling for various socioeconomic factors and unobserved heterogeneity, we find that when a state becomes more liberal politically, its consumption of beer and spirits rises, while its consumption of wine may fall. Our findings suggest that political beliefs are correlated with the demand for alcohol.

For all you politically conservative drinkers out there, check out one of our most popular podcasts of all time: “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?

1/30/14

Reducing Recidivism Through Incentives

Ryan Bradley, writing for CNNMoney, highlights an interesting policy experiment currently underway in New York City: a social impact bond geared at reducing recidivism:

They are called “social impact bonds.” The first, issued in 2012 by Goldman Sachs (GS), is underway in New York City for $9.6 million. The money is going toward a four-year program to reduce reincarceration of juveniles at Riker’s Island prison. Goldman Sachs has a vested interest in the success of this program. If participants stop returning to jail at a rate of 10% or greater, Goldman will earn $2.1 million. If the recidivism rate rises above 10% over four years, Goldman stands to lose $2.4 million. In a recent report, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law calls this a “bet on success … instead of using the typical model of privatization, in which private prisons generally bet on failure (i.e. the more prisoners, the better).”

Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of a nonprofit that, among other things, helps former convicts avoid reincarceration for minor parole violations, believes the idea could be “transformative.”  

1/24/14

Can Economic Growth Continue Forever? Of Course!

Tim Harford, who writes the Financial Times‘s  “Undercover Economist” column, has appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is part of a series adapted from his new book The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run or Ruin an Economy

Can economic growth continue forever? The internet seems to be full of physicists explaining that economists are clueless on this topic. There’s the late Albert Bartlett’s hugely popular videos – or Tom Murphy’s article “Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist.” The key issue is that exponential growth will eventually take you to impossible places. And by eventually, the physicists mean “sooner than we expect.”

Exponential growth is any kind of growth that compounds like interest payments. The classic example is the rice on the chessboard. According to an old story, the inventor of the game of chess was offered a reward by a delighted king. He requested a modest-sounding payment: one grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard, two on the second, four on the third, doubling each time. Yet this is actually a colossal amount—many times the annual rice production of the entire planet.

1/24/14

Marijuana and the NFL

One of our very first Freakonomics Radio podcasts focused on brain trauma among NFL players. Writing for Vice, David Bienenstock argues that NFL players might benefit hugely from medical marijuana. He points to an editorial in the Washington Post earlier this year, describing research indicating that marijuana could protect player’s brains from the long-term effects of traumatic brain injuries:

As it turns out, recent studies are starting to contradict the notion that marijuana kills brain cells. Last year, researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel gave low doses of THC, one of marijuana’s primary cannabinoids, to mice either before or after exposing them to brain trauma. They found that THC produced heightened amounts of chemicals in the brain that actually protected cells. Weeks later, the mice performed better on learning and memory tests, compared with a control group. The researchers concluded that THC could prevent long-term damage associated with brain injuries. Though preliminary, this is just one of many promising studies exploring marijuana’s benefits for the brain.

1/24/14

Israel’s New Organ Donation Nudge

Israel, which has a history of creatively incentivizing organ donation, will soon be implementing yet another organ “nudge.”  Al Roth shared a recent email from Israeli transplant surgeon (and Freakonomics podcast guestJay Lavee explaining the new policy (which is based on unpublished research by Roth and Judd Kessler): 

Just a short note to let you know that the Israeli Minister of Health has adopted this week my recommendation to establish by law the modified mandated choice model based upon your work, whereby the issuing or renewal of an ID, passport or driving license will be conditional upon answering the question of becoming a registered donor to which only a positive answer will be given as an option or else the “Continue” button will be selected. It seems that, contrary to my previous worries, the entire registration for these documents is currently being done online and therefore there should be no technical issues to implement this model.

1/21/14

Are Recessions Like Prison Camps or Baby-sitting Co-ops?

Tim Harford, who writes the Financial Times‘s “Undercover Economist” column, has appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is part of a series adapted from his new book The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run or Ruin an Economy

Robert A. Radford studied economics at Cambridge University, and worked at the International Monetary Fund. In between, he spent half the war in a German prison camp, and on his release wrote an article, “The Economic Organization of a P.O.W. Camp.” It gives a surprising insight into economic recessions.

The building blocks of the P.O.W. camp economy were parcels of food and cigarettes that the prisoners received from the Red Cross. These parcels were standardized—everybody got the same, beyond the occasional package from home. Occasionally, the Red Cross received bumper supplies, or ran short; in those circumstances everybody enjoyed a surplus or a shortage. Naturally enough, while prisoners had equal rations, they did not have identical preferences. The Sikhs didn’t have much use for their rations of beef or razor blades, for example; the French were desperate for more coffee; the English wanted more tea.

1/21/14

Meditating on Those Sunk Costs

The sunk-cost fallacy leads to all sorts of poor decision-making — like staying too long at a bad job or refusing to drop out of a hopeless mayoral campaign.  Here’s how Dubner explained it in our podcast on quitting:

A “sunk cost” is just what it sounds like: time or money you’ve already spent. The sunk-cost fallacy is when you tell yourself that you can’t quit because of all that time or money you spent. We shouldn’t fall for this fallacy, but we do it all the time.

But there’s new hope for all you sunk-cost believers out there: new research (abstractPDF) from Andrew C. Hafenbrack, Zoe Kinias, and Sigal Barsade shows that a 15-minute mindfulness meditation practice can help.

1/21/14

Fantasy Football For Econ Nerds

Christian Zimmerman of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has created the ultimate game for econ nerds: the RePEc Fantasy Economic league.  “The IDEAS fantasy league allows you to pretend you are at the helm of an economics department,” explains the league’s website. “Your goal is to improve its ranking relative to other departments in the league. You can do this by trading economists and by choosing which ones to activate in your roster.”  A Business Insider article explores optimal strategy:

“In real life when you build a department, you want to hire people that are prospects,” Zimmermann said. “In this fantasy league, it’s just the same. You really want to acquire people that are going to be doing well in the next 10 years.”

In other words, you want the sleeper picks. Ask yourself: Who is going to cost 1 util and then put out some game-changing working papers?

Edwards agrees that you have to look for the rising stars. “It’s a Moneyball type strategy,” he said. “Looking for undervalued economists and trying to invest, or trying to divest in overvalued economists.” 

1/17/14

FREAK-Shots: No Pants Subway Ride

Every year, anti-pants activists take over the New York City subway for one dayJodie Lyn-Kee-Chow posted this photo from this year’s “No Pants Subway Ride.” Does this help or harm our reputation?

1/16/14

The Undercover Economist Is Back

Tim Harford, who writes the Financial Times‘s “Undercover Economist” column, has appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is adapted from his new book The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run or Ruin an Economy. Harford also appeared in our podcast “Hey Baby, Is That a Prius You’re Driving?

Perhaps the strangest currency in the world can be found on the island of Yap, in Micronesia in the West Pacific. This coin, the rai, is a stone wheel with a hole in the middle. Some rai are fairly portable—a handspan or less across, and the weight of a couple of bags of sugar. But the most valued stones are far bigger—one British sailor wrote in the late nineteenth century of a stone wheel that was four and a half tons in weight and more than nine feet in diameter. In other words, it was almost completely immovable.

Yap’s stone money used to be a serious business. The stones were quarried and carved on the island of Palau, 250 miles away. One Victorian naturalist witnessed four hundred men from Yap, a tenth of the adult male population, at work in the quarries of Palau. Getting the stones from Palau to Yap on a little bamboo boat was a difficult and sometimes lethal affair—some of the stones weighed as much as two cars. (And rai were especially valuable if someone had died on the expedition to fetch them.) The biggest stones might have been used for major transactions such as buying land or wives; more modest-size stones—a couple of feet across—were exchangeable for a pig. Even then, it would have been a lot easier to move the pig than to move the stone.

1/16/14

Is Your City in the Right Place?

An article on VOX by Guy Michaels and Ferdinand Rauch looks at whether towns in France and Britain are “poorly located.” The authors explain that being in the wrong place — with poor access to world markets and resources, or vulnerability to natural disasters — has dire economic and social consequences. Examining historical evidence from the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, they found that towns in France stayed put, while those in Britain moved:

Medieval towns in France were much more likely to be located near Roman towns than their British counterparts (Figure 1). These differences in persistence are still visible today: only three of the 20 largest cities in Britain are located near the site of Roman towns, compared to 16 in France. This finding suggests that the British urban network shifted towards newly advantageous locations, while French towns remained in locations, which may have become obsolete.

They also found coastal access to be important:

1/15/14

A Frog in the Salad

Two years ago, we did a podcast on a dining experience Stephen Dubner had at Le Pain Quotidien. The podcast was called “Mouse in the Salad,” so you can probably guess what happened. And it looks like animals in salads are all the rage lately — The Atlantic Wire reports that a Wall Street Journal editor recently found a frog in her Pret A Manger nicoise salad. The reason given by Pret was similar to the one given by Le Pain Quotidien CEO Vincent Herbert in our podcast: it’s organic. From WSJ.com:

Ellen Roggemann, vice president of brand marketing for the company in the U.S., said that Pret A Manger’s goal of selling “handmade natural food,” often made from organic ingredients, could be partially to blame for the frog in the salad.

“We don’t use any pesticides with our greens and they go through multiple washing cycles,” she said. “An unfortunate piece of organic matter has made its way through,” she added.

In our podcast, Dubner’s friend James Altucher had an interesting perspective on how things like this happen:

1/14/14

The Freakonomics Radio Network

Freakonomics Radio Follow this show 801 Episodes
No Stupid Questions Follow this show 217 Episodes
People I (Mostly) Admire Follow this show 148 Episodes
The Economics of Everyday Things Follow this show 61 Episodes
The Freakonomics Radio Book Club Follow this show 23 Episodes

How to Listen

You want to listen to Freakonomics Radio? That’s great! Most people use a podcast app on their smartphone. It’s free (with the purchase of a phone, of course). Looking for more guidance? We’ve got you covered.

Learn more about how to listen

Freakonomics Radio Network Newsletter

Stay up-to-date on all our shows. We promise no spam.