When Freakonomics.com was launched in 2005, it was essentially a blog (c’mon, blogs were a thing then!). The first Freakonomics book had just been published, and Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt wanted to continue their conversation with readers. Over time, the blog grew to have millions of readers, a variety of regular and guest writers, and it was hosted by The New York Times, where Dubner and Levitt also published a monthly “Freakonomics” column. The authors later collected some of the best blog writing in a book called When to Rob a Bank … and 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants. (The publisher rejected their original title: We Were Only Trying to Help. The publisher had also rejected the title Freakonomics at first, so they weren’t surprised.) While the blog has not had any new writing in quite some time, the entire archive is still here for you to read.
A few months back, I helped start a little company, SpinforGood, that offers a new way to give to charity while having fun. It’s not legal in the U.S. to play games like slots and blackjack for real money online, but it is legal to play those games online for charity. So it’s our hope that by hooking up people who like to gamble online with charities, we can let people have fun while doing a whole lot of good.
We are running a special tournament today and tomorrow. In this particular tournament, I personally donated $1,000 of my own money to the prize pool to give people an extra incentive to participate. Which charities get my money (and yours) will be decided by the tournament winners. So for a $10 donation, you can have fun gambling and potentially win thousands of dollars for the charity of your choice.
We are starting to put together an anthology of posts from this blog, which we began in 2005, just before the publication of Freakonomics. It is a lot of fun going through the archives — more than 8,000 posts! — but also a bit overwhelming.
Are you willing to help? Whether you are a longtime reader or a new one, please tell us (in the comments section below) any blog posts that you think should be included (or that shouldn’t be). Maybe it was a post you loved … or hated … or something that changed the way you think … or gave you a good idea. Maybe it was simply something that was memorable for reasons you don’t understand.
Don’t feel that you need to troll through the archives as I’m doing, although you are certainly welcome to!
Bloomberg reports that Italy will now begin including its shadow economy in the country’s GDP, in an effort to reduce the national deficit:
Italy will include prostitution and illegal drug sales in the gross domestic product calculation this year, a boost for its chronically stagnant economy and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s effort to meet deficit targets.
Drugs, prostitution and smuggling will be part of GDP as of 2014 and prior-year figures will be adjusted to reflect the change in methodology, the Istat national statistics office said today. The revision was made to comply with European Union rules, it said.
It has been 36 years since a horse won the Triple Crown. California Chrome has a chance to make history today if he wins the Belmont Stakes, the last leg of the Triple Crown.
So how should you bet the race? California Chrome will be a prohibitive favorite, partly because he deserves to be based on past performances, and partly because it is fun and exciting to be able to say that you bet on the horse who won the Triple Crown. I can remember the specifics of very few horse races, but I still remember exactly where I was watching on TV when Secretariat won the Triple Crown because I had decided after the Preakness that he was my favorite horse. I was six years old. It’s fun to feel a connection to a champion.
Most likely, way too much money will be bet to win on California Chrome, for the reasons above. The more money that is bet on him, the worse the odds. I doubt that it will be a smart bet to play California Chrome to win.
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.
In Think Like a Freak, we touch briefly on paying schoolkids for good grades — which, much of the time, isn’t successful. This inspired a note from a reader named Gary Crowley, who describes himself as “an economics major in college many years ago”:
Loved Think Like a Freak.
One thought: Why don’t we trying paying parents for kids getting good grades??? If the parents are motivated to make money, from someone else’s hard work, then they’ll make the kids work harder and want them to stay in school. I think paying the kids doesn’t take advantage of the leverage of a parent over their child. Just a thought.
As a child in the feudal system of a blue-collar Irish-Catholic East Coast family, my Dad took great pride in and took the credit for his beautiful lawn. This would be the same lawn that his children did all the work on. Haha. Don’t see why it wouldn’t work for grades. And I’m sure the parents would be just as proud, even if they’re getting paid.
Gary’s note may also be referring to a brief passage in Think about the parents of schoolkids:
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.
One great example is the book’s second chapter, “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language,” which is about how people are reluctant to say “I don’t know” when in fact they don’t know the answer to a question or the solution to a problem.
We explored this topic in last week’s podcast, and I wanted to share with you some of the most interesting feedback.
Our new book, Think Like a Freak, has just been published and we’d like to talk about it with you. So we are forming the Think Like a Freak Book Club.
How does it work? You write in your questions/comments/complaints in the comments section below and we’ll respond to some of them in our podcast. For now, we’re planning to do three episodes of the Book Club. (But if you know us even a little bit, you know we won’t be afraid to quit after one if it doesn’t work out!) Since there are nine chapters in the book, let’s start with questions that pertain to Chapter 1, 2, and 3 of Think. Those are: “What Does It Mean to Think Like a Freak?,” “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language,” and “What’s Your Problem?”
If we choose your question for the podcast, we’ll send you a signed copy of Think Like a Freak or a limited edition Think Like a Freak t-shirt. Thanks!
You never know what Freakonomics Radio listeners will come up with after listening to our podcasts.
Here, from Josh Miner, is a response to our recent episode “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Avocado,” in which we wondered why some people get upset over the plight of factory-farmed chicken while not many seem to care about the humans who suffer because of the extortion and violence in the avocado industry.
What makes Josh’s response so noteworthy? Among other things, it comes replete with flow chart. Read on!
I love your show — in fact, I loved this episode on the moral impact and consequences of our choices. I got so unbelievably mad, though, when you both simplified the question of how consumers’ choices about what they eat affects the food market in which they participate.
Here are some thoughts — not so well organized.
From a friend whose young daughter Lea, around 13 years old, grabbed the copy of Think Like a Freak that I send my friend and “is now devouring it.” But that’s not the good part:
She woke up this morning and told me that she had dreamed last night that we were at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees were winning 12-0, and when Lea looked around, everyone in the stands was reading Think Like a Freak.
And here’s a note from “an almost 13-year-old,” Charlotte, which came over the transom:
Last week, we offered some Think Like a Freak swag to the reader who came up with the best answer to the question “What Are the Three Hardest Words to Say?” Your answers were so good (and plentiful!) that we decided to choose three winners, each of whom can have their pick of a signed copy of our new book or a Think Like a Freak t-shirt. (If you didn’t win, there’s another contest going on right now.)
Winner No. 1 is Kris Fletcher, the first (of many) to provide the same answer we provide in the book: “I don’t know.”
Winner No. 2 is Bob S., who plainly gets the spirit of the Levitt-Dubner collaboration, with “Good point, Dubner.”
And Winner No. 3 is Jake. While a lot of people answered “I was wrong,” Jake had a similar take but opted for “I’ve no excuse,” making a case for why that’s even tougher than “I was wrong”:
“I was wrong” seems to be a common phrase people are mentioning, but I think admitting you are wrong is easy if you don’t have to admit that your inner processes were wrong. All the time, you hear people say something like, “Oh, I was wrong about that, but I didn’t have the data I needed at the time.” Very rarely do you hear someone take full blame for their actions without at least assigning partial blame elsewhere. Admitting that you and you alone were in the wrong is much harder.
In our latest podcast, Levitt talked about how much he dreads going on book tours. He claims to not like being the center of attention, and having to talk to so many people. (Between you and me, I’m not sure he hates it as much as he says.)
Hearing Levitt’s complaints, a listener named Cy Helm has written in with some advice for Levitt.
Last week, Levitt eulogized Gary Becker, who died at age 83. After bringing an entirely new set of ideas to his discipline, for which he was occasionally ridiculed or marginalized, Becker was ultimately rewarded with nearly universal acclaim (and a Nobel Prize).
A couple weeks earlier, Seth Roberts died. He too brought an entirely new set of ideas to his discipline — he was a psychologist who delighted in self-experimentation — for which he too was occasionally ridiculed or marginalized. He didn’t receive the universal acclaim Becker did, and Seth died far too young, in his early sixties.
But Seth had a huge impact on the people who were lucky enough to know his work or, even better, know him. Levitt and I wrote about him back in 2005, taken by the diligence and creativity with which be tackled topics like diet, personal health, sleep, and even acne.
Today’s the day: Think Like a Freak has just been published. Levitt and I will spend a lot of the next few weeks doing interviews for various TV, radio, print, web, and other media outlets. So how about we spice things up a bit and, at the same time, give you the chance to win a signed copy? (Winners of last week’s giveaway contest will be announced later today.)
Here’s the deal: in the comments section below, enter a word or short phrase that you’d like us to slip into one of our interviews. If we use your secret phrase, you win a signed copy of Think Like a Freak (or, if you prefer, a Think t-shirt).
From a Canadian reader named Barry Neelin:
I am constantly being asked if I am Rob Ford. Some say we could be twins. I want to be able to offer corporations my Fordability to advertise their products using Mr. Ford’s facial recognition. I have had no luck. Some say this is unusual in that he has selling appeal. I consider my freak ways of decision-making reliable, but I am up against a wall. Your thoughts would be appreciated. See attached pic.
I guess the first step for Barry would be to determine what kind of corporations are open to using “his Fordability to advertise their products.” Any thoughts?
Once in a while, we get a report from our publishers about how many copies of Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics have been sold around the world. Last we heard — it was a while ago — we were at 5 million.
The latest report tells us we’ve just breached the 7 million mark. Here’s a rough breakdown:
• United States: 4.4 million
•United Kingdom: 1.65 million
•Translated editions: 1 million
With the global population at around 7 billion, those 7 million copies represent a nice round number: 1 book sold for every 1,000 people on the planet.
With Think Like a Freak coming out next week, I hope we get to 10 million copies before there are 10 billion people on Earth.
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.
It’s nice to have a podcast that is popular, but it’s another thing to have a podcast that actually changes the world. Can you guess which of our recent episodes changed the world? Maybe the one about pedestrians getting run over? Or the one about blood avocados? Nope. Here’s an e-mail from Mandi Grzelak, a listener in Cincinnati:
True story: while listening to your Feb. 6 podcast “What You Don’t Know About Online Dating,” I thought to myself, “I should try online dating!” After all, if NPR employees are on sites like OKCupid, I might have a shot with one! How amazing would that be?!
Long story short: I signed up that afternoon, started with some e-mails and went on my first date (from the site, not ever) on Feb. 10. Tim and I have been inseparable ever since, bring each other endless amounts of happiness, and last night he proposed. I, obviously, said yes. We plan to elope in NYC this August, to avoid a large dramatic wedding. But you and your families are welcome to join us.
Dubner is too modest to write this blog post himself, so I will do it for him.
This piece wasn’t published by Stephen Dubner. It was published by Solomon Dubner, Stephen’s 13-year-old son!
In our forthcoming Think Like a Freak, the second chapter is called “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language.”
I’m not going to tell you here what we argue are the three hardest words to say (although you can find out pretty easily by glancing at the Table of Contents). I want to know what you think are the three hardest words for people to say, especially in public. And by “hard,” I am not talking about pronunciation, although I guess I’m not not talking about pronunciation either.
The best answer that is left in the comments — as voted by a secret quorum of Freaks — will win you a signed copy of Think Like a Freak or a new Think t-shirt, your choice.
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.
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.
I recently had the privilege of addressing the American Library Association‘s “Summit on the Future of Libraries” at the Library of Congress in Washington. I was mostly there to give a talk about Think Like a Freak, but I took advantage of the setting to speak about libraries as well. Here is some of what I said:
I know you didn’t invite me here to tell you how much I love libraries … but I’m going to do it anyway.
Without the public library in the town in upstate New York where I grew up, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today. Not that I wouldn’t be alive – even I don’t think libraries are that powerful – but I don’t know if I would have become a writer.
It was in that library that I learned to read. It was in that library that I learned to write. It was in that library that I learned to do research. My first research project was a historical essay about a little overgrown Quaker cemetery up on a hill behind our house, a cemetery that nobody alive knew anything about – but the library did.
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?
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.
It can be found here under “Editorial Reviews.” In case you don’t feel like clicking through:
In one of the many wonderful moments in Think Like a Freak, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner ask the question: Who is easier to fool—kids or adults? The obvious answer, of course, is kids. The cliché is about taking candy from a baby, not a grown man. But instead of accepting conventional wisdom as fact, the two sit down with the magician Alex Stone—someone in the business of fooling people—and ask him what he thinks. And his answer? Adults.
Stone gave the example of the staple of magic tricks, the “double lift,” where two cards are presented as one. It’s how a magician can seemingly bury a card that you have selected at random and then miraculously retrieve it. Stone has done the double lift countless times in his career, and he says it is kids—overwhelmingly—who see through it. Why? The magician’s job is to present a series of cues—to guide the attention of his audience—and adults are really good at following cues and paying attention. Kids aren’t. Their gaze wanders. Adults have a set of expectations and assumptions about the way the world works, which makes them vulnerable to a profession that tries to exploit those expectations and assumptions. Kids don’t know enough to be exploited. Kids are more curious. They don’t overthink problems; they’re more likely to understand that the basis of the trick is something really, really simple. And most of all—and this is my favorite—kids are shorter than adults, so they quite literally see the trick from a different and more revealing angle.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a major technology case, ABC v. Aereo. The case attracted a huge amount of attention – “Aereo” was the #1 Google search on Tuesday. And that isn’t really surprising. What the Court decides in Aereo could have profound effects on the future not only of television, but of the Internet as well.
Aereo’s business model is clever and, potentially, very disruptive. As they have done since the dawn of television, the major networks – ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX – broadcast their signals over the air. You can receive these signals with a digital antenna – the modern equivalent of rabbit ears – and millions of Americans who don’t subscribe to cable or satellite still do.
Aereo is nominally in the antenna business. Aereo owns thousands of tiny digital antennas – each about the size of a dime – on the roof of a building in Brooklyn. In exchange for a monthly fee that ranges from $8-$12, an Aereo subscriber can dial into one of these antennas to watch whatever she wants.
Fresh-made gefilte fish is hard to find this Passover season, because the harsh winter restricted fishing on the Great Lakes, sharply decreasing the supply of an essential input—whitefish. While this delicacy is not required by ritual, it is traditional—and with fresh-ground horseradish it is a mouth- (and eye-) watering treat. One would think that a rising price would equilibrate the market, but it hasn’t—apparently merchants did not want to antagonize customers by raising prices. Indeed, the nature-induced shortage in the market for fresh gefilte fish has increased the demand in the related market for the pre-made Manischewitz product, so that is hard to find too. Pretty sad when you can’t find gefilte fish even in Manhattan!
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