Freakonomics FAQ, No. 1 (Ep. 18)

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Freakonomics FAQ, No. 1: In which Levitt and Dubner field questions from the public and hold forth on everything from dating strategies and rock-and-roll accordion music to whether different nations have different economic identities. Oh, and also: is it worthwhile to vote?

This week’s Freakonomics Radio podcast is a Q&A session in which Levitt and I (mostly Levitt – he’s the smart one) respond to the questions you submitted on this blog a while back. (You can download/subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, read the transcript, or listen live via the link in box above.) It was a lot of fun to do, and if you don’t hate it, we’ll do it again sometime.

One question was from a reader named Thomas Lau:

With many different countries (including my own beloved Ireland) facing economic crises, I was wondering if you or others have looked at whether different economic groups or peoples have “economic personalities,” and if these fit in with existing stereotypes. Are the Americans enthusiastic go-getters while the Germans are reserved pragmatists? Who are the romantics? The gamblers? The cynics?

Levitt’s reply, in part:

I’m always hesitant to attribute differences, say, across countries, to the people who inhabit those countries as opposed to the incentives and the institutions that exist. So, if you think of a place like Spain or Italy, which has very high unemployment, you might say, “Well, that’s because people are lazy.” Or: you might say that’s because there are very high replacement rates. So that if you become unemployed, you’re paid almost as much as if you work. Or they have rules in place so that it’s impossible to fire people. Then it turns out that employers don’t want to hire a lot of people either because they know that the costs of hiring become much, much higher.

In response to another question, Levitt offered career advice:

Make sure that whatever you love doing is something other people don’t love to do. The worst thing in the world is to find some kind of job that everybody wants to do – like being a rock star. Stephen, you’ve tried to be a rock star, it’s hard work. Or a movie star. You have to find something that is idiosyncratically something you love but everyone else despises. So if your dream is to be a garbage man, for instance, you’re guaranteed to have success in life.

Also, some dating advice:

If I only had perfect foresight, I would realize that if you can actually have some success in life, you’ll get dates once you have success. … My advice would be: while you’re waiting to be successful, spend your time in becoming successful and worry about dates once you’re successful because it’ll be so much easier to get dates once you’re successful.

One reader asked about something we’ve discussed a few times in the past: the value of an individual vote. Levitt’s reply:

Nobody in their right mind votes because they think they’re going to affect the outcome of an election. If you look over the last hundred years of, say, elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, I think there’s been maybe one [very close] election that’s been decided by votes. And in the modern era, elections that are close are always decided by the courts. There’s always litigation – look at what happened with Bush against Gore. So in no meaningful way can you say that your vote will ever decide an election. The reasons for voting have to be something very different: it’s fun, your wife will love you more if you do it, it makes you feel like a proud American – but never should anyone delude themselves into thinking that the vote they cast will ever decide an election. … Just about anything you do with your time would be more productive [than voting].

Someone also asked whether Levitt or I is smarter. (Puh-leeze.) And someone wanted to know if I still play rock-and-roll accordion. (Short answer: no.) But in the outro of the episode, you’ll hear a piece of music from my old band, The Right Profile, with a little accordion underlayer. FWIW, one of my former bandmates, Jeffrey Dean Foster, is still making music; and so is our great drummer, Jon Wurster, who played for years with Superchunk and many others. The song here is called “Slip Your Hand Inside My Coat.”

Thanks again for all the good questions. Hope you like the show.

John Mulholland

With regards to voting, that is why we have the Electoral College, though it has been misused.

Utah also has a great caucus system. Neighborhoods elect delegates who then vote at convention. It works great.


Sorry, but in my experience your dating advice doesn't pan out, or at least not unless you define successful as "got as much money as Hugh Hefner". I had a lot more luck getting dates as a starving college student than I do as a reasonably successful professional, some decades later. (And unlike most of my contemporaries, I still have hair, and at least four out of the six-pack abs.) So while success may be valued for its own sake, when it comes to dating, carpe diem!


Some thoughts....

One of the things that attracted me to my wife was the fact that she pointed out a $189 ring in the Sears catalog. That kind of sealed the deal for me--she wasn't a gold digger. I went out and bought her a much, much more expensive ring. I didn't want a keeper to get away.

Indeed, you can find plenty of "dates" if you are successful. But just how much do you think Hugh Hefner's fiancee REALLY loves him? I'd rather find love than find dates--and you would likely be somewhat suspicious of someone who, never giving you the time of day before, is now ready to be your spouse, now that you've won the lottery, or the Nobel Prize, or what have you.

Success is so much sweeter when the woman by your side believed in you long before accolades came your way. She's the real deal.

Now, about voting.... You are absolutely right, no doubt, that MY vote doesn't matter. But consider what happens if everyone who was going to vote decided that their vote didn't matter.

Indeed, none of us get to choose our representatives by ourselves. Even if a person wins by a single vote, that one vote didn't elect him/her. It was that vote AND the many others that came before it.

I vote for several reasons:

1) I'd be very upset if they took the right away from me because I didn't appear to ever use it.

2) I like to bellyache about things, so I feel that I have to vote in order to be well justified in either nagging my representative or complaining about the one you elected--ha!

3) Some things you do just out of raw principle. This is not about me saving time, obtaining greater efficiency, or the such. It's about me getting the right to do what millions of people would give their blood to do--and what our forefathers supposedly fought the Revolutionary War over--namely, "no taxation without representation."


Eric M. Jones

Levitt is the smart one? "'ll get dates once you have success..."

Your belief in any rational theory applied to human mating practices is wildly misplaced. I could tell you stories....oy....


I find the voting issue interesting. Yes, as one vote, I cannot influence anything. But if every potential voter stayed home instead of voting, then we would probably have a dictatorship, or more likely in this country, a theocracy. It is the same for most of us in our daily life: The work we do contributes little to the economy but if nobody worked, well we all know what would happen. I think that some smart economists should ponder this philosophical point.


i wonder if the "you'll get more dates when you're successful" applies to women as well to men.

joe average

Well, I think votes DO count.

Votes count because if the election is not close, the election doesn't make it to the courts.

So you should vote so that the election results are really close.

Greg M. Johnson

Regarding your comment on voting, I cannot imagine a more unthoughtful and wrong-headed analysis.

My vote may make little difference on whether candidate X or Y wins the election. But the reason to vote is exactly the same reason as whether to perform another "charitable act" that I also heard discussed in a podcast today. That act had to do with plastic bags. Sea turtles are choking & dying on plastic bags which are adrift in oceans, because they mistake the bags for jellyfish. It turns out that plastic bags aren't as digestible as jellyfish, and it blocks their intestines.

Now if I take one plastic bag and go throw it in the street in front of my house, the chances are infitesimally small that it will get to the ocean. (I'm upstate!) Multiply that by the chances of bags making it into the ocean running across sea turtles, and you have a no-brainer. My act of tossing a bag has no effect. Yet sea turtles are dying in an epidemic, because millions of people are not careful.

Same with elections. Setting aside primary elections, which are both more apt to have close votes and involve outright dangerous kooks, you didn't consider the issue of mandate. A President wins by 50.1% or 65% will behave very differently in office-- they may feel a divine mandate to go start a war that kills hundreds of thousands of people.



There IS a rational reason to vote:

If everyone else is rational, they will not show up to vote because their vote does not count. Then, the election totally hinges on my - THE ONLY ONE - vote. Furthermore, the elected official will be totally beholden to my influence. I can establish a tax for everyone outside my address. Create tax breaks just for me. The potential payoff is so huge, it is worth going.

Of course, this works until I see other people voting. But, luckily, it is rational for me to vote absentee to minimize the chance that an earthquake or snowstorm will prevent me from voting on that day.


Interesting that one should vote for a politican's term of a few years based on principle but search for a lifetime's husband or wife based on avarice.


Yeah, this wasn't the most insightful or illuminating chat. For some reason I considered these two guys a lot more shrewd and interesting.

Thomas Cook

If, in the course of your voting career, the standard measurement error is less than your vote, or even the vote of everyone on your block, you're probably not voting for anything bigger than class president.

If you want to affect policies and not get swept away in the statistical tidal currents, trying lobbying instead of voting.

If you want that "warm-glow" (an official term in public-good economics) effect, then by all means vote.


Your dating advise is terrible. Wait until you are successful to date because you will have a more target rich environment!

First of all many folks are never "sucessful", second you really don't want to spend you 20's celibate, third all the best couples I know paired up well before there fortunes were known. There is something more honest in bounding yourself to someone for better or worse, not just successful.

Peter Pappas

Here's another Question: What's the opportunity cost of vengeance?

Answer: Read my post "What Happens as the Cost of Hating Pigs Approaches Zero?"


The voting discussion confuses the prior and posterior probability of a vote "counting". Once the result is known, and crucially just how many people voted, one can say with confidence that a single vote was just one among many, and did not affect the outcome. However, prior to voting, there is a chance that one might be the only person to vote (particularly if everyone believed their votes did not count!) or that one might be part of a narrowly victorious bloc. As long as you have a stake in the outcome and that chance exists, no matter how small it may be, voting is better than not voting.

Another way to look at this would be to take the results of a landslide where, say, one candidate wins 70 million to 30 million. It is incorrect to say that one vote did not change the outcome; rather, it contributed 1/20 millionth of the result!


This observation about dating clearly applies to men much more than women. Perhaps you should acknowledge that? Otherwise, it seems like you live in a world where only the man's perspective counts.


The unemployment rate in Italy is lower than in the US, and less than half the Spanish one
Now you know it..


The benefit of voting is that politicians only pander to voters.
My friend says she doesn't vote for the reason Levitt explains. I said, "but look at it this way: You don't vote, along with a lot of people your age, and what do you get from the government? At best, a reasonable rate on your student loans. Look at your grandma: She and her friends have voted in every single election since nineteen dicketty-two, and what does she get? All her heathcare for free, AND the government sends her a check every month just for beind OLD!"
Thats why voting matters.


The only reason to vote is if the margin of victory is likely to be a single vote? This seems like an absurdly narrow view. What about the strong incentives of the many people whose careers are devoted to finding ways to get you to want to vote? If, as you say, voting is not a rational action, then political strategists will target their appeals only to irrational voters. The representatives elected by these irrational voters are unlikely to implement policies in line with the views of all the rational non-voters. So, in order to have rational government, we must all behave irrationally.


Why do people who analyze the value of voting always focus on large national elections? When I was growing up, I saw local elections decided by a handful of votes.

Those elections convinced me of the value of an individual vote. I vote on principle now, because I saw cases where a few votes made a difference. I make it a point to vote in primaries and local elections because I think my votes are more influential in those contests.

What I don't understand is why people whose votes could make a difference in state and local elections ignore those elections and only go to the polls in the U.S. to vote for president.

To me, the parallel in this is research about people most likely to say, help return a wallet dropped on the street or assist a lost child in the city. There were some studies that showed people with rural backgrounds were more likely to intervene than people who had lived all their lives in the city. Maybe voter education programs should focus on showing teenagers how individual votes matter at the lowest levels of government.