Mr. Poo

I visited India for the first time a few years ago, and ever since I have been thinking about the enormous problem of public defecation. It is not quite as au courant a topic as, say, human trafficking, but in terms of the number of lives affected, it has massive implications because of the spread of disease.

The latest attempt to make progress on this problem is a music video launched by UNICEF.

A Freakonomics Proposal to Help the British National Health Service

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.

Testing the Limits of Google Translate

Google Translate is an amazing thing.  You can take a chunk of text in just about any language, paste it into Google Translate, and it is instantaneously (if imperfectly) translated.

Since I can’t speak anything other than English, I’m not in a great position to say how good or bad the translations are, but my multi-lingual friends generally turn their noses up at Google Translate, saying it doesn’t do that great a job.

My response is that compared to any other alternative I know (like trying to track down someone who speaks Croatian, or going word by word through a Croatian-English dictionary), it seems like a miracle.  I love it.

But even Google Translate has its limits.

Proud Papa

Dubner is too modest to write this blog post himself, so I will do it for him.

Recently, Dubner wrote this piece, which got published on World Soccer Talk. You probably didn't know Dubner was such a soccer buff.  Actually, he's not.

This piece wasn't published by Stephen Dubner. It was published by Solomon Dubner, Stephen's 13-year-old son!

Spin for Good

Americans love to gamble, as evidenced by the ubiquity of lotteries, the growing number of local casinos, and the remarkable success of Las Vegas.

One place Americans can’t legally gamble is online because, except in a few states, the current laws prohibit it.  Right now, the closest legal substitute that exists for Americans is virtual gambling at sites like Zynga, where people pay literally billions of dollars a year in real money to buy tokens that allow them to play virtual slot machines and tables games.  By virtual, I mean that even though the consumers pay real money, they can’t win cash prizes, but rather things like online trophies or more tokens that allow them to play the games longer.

Gary Becker, 1930-2014

I’m so sorry to have to write that Gary Becker passed away on Saturday, at the age of 83.  Gary was not only the most creative and influential economist of the last 50 years, but also a kind and gentle person, a mentor, and a close friend.

Others will write at length about Gary’s contributions to economics.  I want to say just a few things in that regard.  About ten years ago, Pierre-Andre Chiappori and I analyzed which economic theorists have had the greatest impact on empirical research by looking at the key motivating citations in papers published in top journals in recent years.  Becker was by far the most influential theorist by our metric.  What was most remarkable was that thirteen different works of his were cited; no one else had more than three or four.  He published influential research in every decade from the 1950s to the present – incredible longevity.  No one else had  longevity like that.

My Annual Kentucky Derby Picks

I make public predictions about anything exactly three times a year: who will win each of the three Triple Crown thoroughbred horse races.  Other than that, I predict nothing.

The nice thing about making so few predictions is that by the time next year’s predictions roll around, no one can remember how last year’s predictions turned out.  My very worst year, I named with confidence the horse that I believed would finish dead last, when in fact that horse won the race!  Nonetheless, people still asked me for my picks the next year.

This year, I even got invited to do a live Q&A on the Kentucky Derby, which you can check out at Deadspin.

So who do I like this year in the Kentucky Derby?

The Ravages of Time

My twenty-five year college reunion is right around the corner.  In advance of the event, my classmates were asked to write a short summary of their post college life.  Next to each write-up was the picture from our graduating yearbook twenty-five years ago.  Many of the entries also include current pictures.

Flipping casually through the book, I noticed two things. First, it is amazing how old we all look.  Time really takes its toll, that’s for sure. Second, men were much more likely than women to submit pictures of what they look like now.

There was a third thing that also seemed to be true.  Many of the people who were really attractive twenty-five years ago don’t look so good now.  And even more interesting, there were a surprising number of people who were unattractive in college, but look great (relative to the rest of us geriatrics) now.  If I had been asked to guess, I would have estimated that the correlation between attractiveness twenty-five years ago and today was zero or even negative for women.  For men I would have guessed a small positive correlation.

I was so struck by the pattern that I decided to do a more systematic data analysis.

Don’t Remind Criminals They Are Criminals

Psychologists have long argued about the power of priming, i.e the power of subtle cues and reminders to influence behavior.  For instance, there are a number of academic papers that find that if you make a woman write down her name and circle her gender before taking a math test, she will do substantially worse than if she just writes her name.  The idea is that women perceive that they are not good at math, and circling their gender reminds them that they are women and therefore should be bad at math.  I’ve always been skeptical of these results (and indeed failed to replicate them in one study I did with Roland Fryer and John List) because gender is such a powerful part of our identities that it's hard for me to believe that we need to remind women that they are women! 

In an interesting new study, "Bad Boys: The Effect of Criminal Identity on Dishonesty," Alain Cohn, Michel Andre Marechal, and Thomas Noll find some fascinating priming effects.  They went into a maximum security prison and had prisoners privately flip coins and then report how many times the coin came up “heads.”  The more “heads” they got, the more money they received.  While the authors can’t tell if any one prisoner is honest or not, they know that on average “heads” comes up half the time, so they can measure in aggregate how much lying there is.  Before the study, they had half the prisoners answer the question “What were you convicted for?” and the other half “How many hours per week do you watch television on average?”  The result: 66 percent “heads” in the treatment where they ask about convictions and “only” 60 percent “heads” in the TV treatment. 

Do Game-Theory-Playing Traffic Lights Reduce Congestion?

That is what the headline of this fascinating article says. Here is a quote from the news report:

In lay language," [Samah] El-Tantawy said in a U of T news release, "the [traffic lights] act as a team of players cooperating to win a game — much like players in a soccer match, where each player endeavors to score, but at the same time considers the ultimate goal of the entire team which is winning the match.

According to the article, travel times were reduced by 26 percent, which is fantastic, and which is what matters.

This doesn’t, however, seem to have much to do with game theory. Game theory is about one of two things: strategic behavior or finding sustainable equilbria. But the traffic lights don’t care about their own private utility.  There is no sense in which they are actors at all, as traffic lights just do what you tell them to do.  In economic terms, there is a central planner who sets the rules which the traffic lights obey. This new scheme provides a new and better set of rules (which, again, I emphasize is great), but I don’t think game theory should get the credit!

(Related: see our "Jane Austen, Game Theorist" podcast.)