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Episode Transcript

Angela DUCKWORTH: Human beings are complicated little suckers.

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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

Stephen DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: Should you have to pay to use a public bathroom?

DUBNER Urination, hand hygiene, tipping — these are some of my very favorite topics in the world.

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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we have a really long email, actually, from one Phil Mitchell.

DUBNER: Do you want to just read it really fast?

DUCKWORTH: Do you have something to drink and a comfortable seat?

DUBNER: Go for it.

DUCKWORTH: “On a recent visit to Europe, where it is common to charge an entry fee to public washrooms, my wife and I had a disagreement over whether this is a good idea. She is from Europe. I’m from Canada. She’s used to this practice and explains that it helps pay for the cleaning of the washrooms and helps keep the queues short.”

DUBNER: Can I interrupt Phil and you for a second?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah.

DUBNER: He immediately notes that she’s from Europe, and she’s used to it, and I’m not, and I’m not. And, therefore, she thinks it’s a good idea, and I don’t. Isn’t that just so interesting, the way that we socially norm ourselves to things that are good or bad?

DUCKWORTH: He is probably right on that. And we’ll talk about our own experiences, but let me continue: “I didn’t have the coins required for the approximately one-dollar fee. I elected to wait rather than plead my case to the attendant. So, I argue that there are health risks associated with avoiding washroom use.”

DUBNER: He’s arguing with the attendant? Like, “I’m going to get a urinary tract infection if you don’t let me in, and —”

DUCKWORTH: Although, he lived to write the email. I guess it all ended well.

DUBNER: Yay, Phil.

DUCKWORTH: Yay! I assume that he was arguing with his wife.

DUBNER: That’s the way to spend a European vacation right there.

DUCKWORTH: “The fee may also encourage public urination.” I don’t know that Phil did that, but anyway: “The fee may also encourage public urination and reduce hand-washing opportunities. Furthermore, I might be inclined to stay longer to ensure I get the most for my money.”

DUBNER: Wait! Phil. Wait.

DUCKWORTH: I’m so glad I’m not on vacation with Phil.

DUBNER: Phil, I love you. I do. But if you’re making the argument that, because you spend one euro, or one dollar, or one lira, or one shekel, to go to the bathroom, you’re worried that I’m going to take a lot longer in there, just hanging out, because I want to get my money’s worth? I’m not saying you’re wrong, Phil. I’m just saying you and I have a fundamental disagreement about whether we like to spend our leisure time in public restrooms.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, wait, there was one other final point: “Finally, if I’m dancing while trying to count coins —”

DUBNER: Oh, because he has to pee so badly.

DUCKWORTH: Right. “I don’t think of that as a good experience.” And then this is how he ends this email: “In North America, when we want to ensure a clean, high-quality washroom experience, we hire an attendant who works for gratuities collected after the fact.”

DUBNER: “We,” in North America in 1958.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. This sounds like a Mad Men thing.

DUBNER: I mean, they do still exist in some places. And, can I just say, I don’t think anybody likes that. Do you like having someone hang out in the bathroom when you go to the bathroom, Angie?

DUCKWORTH: I would pay good money so that nobody had to do the job at all.

DUBNER: So, can we agree that this is probably a pretty bad idea, generally?

DUCKWORTH: We can agree. Yes.

DUBNER: But Phil wants it.

DUCKWORTH: Well, okay. Let me give Phil his due. He’s almost done with this email. So, after saying that in North America we hire an attendant — we’re not sure what century Phil’s talking about, but that’s what Phil’s saying: “I might be inclined to be much more generous if I finished having a good experience, because I’m happy and relaxed. I wonder if the attendant might end up earning more money, but maybe I have more confidence in human generosity than I should. Is it better to ask for tips or to charge compulsory fees?

DUBNER: Phil is a font of interesting observations and questions. There’s so much to talk about here, because he’s asking about tipping; he’s asking about public goods — what should be free and what shouldn’t be free — he’s asking about consumer behavior; he’s asking about urination and hand hygiene. And, I have to say, urination, hand hygiene, tipping — these are some of my very favorite topics in the world.

DUCKWORTH: I think the most interesting thing here — and I’d like to begin with it — is tipping. You’ve talked about tipping on Freakonomics. And we could debate the psychology of tipping. And also, it is weird, right?

DUBNER: It’s an odd tradition with both economic components and, like you said, psychological components, because there are those who argue that, once you are compelled to tip, then it’s not a tip. It’s a “fee,” or a “price,” or a “tax.” We should say, tipping is a much more common thing in the U.S. than most other places, including Europe. In fact, I think the one thing about Americans that the average Parisian likes is that we tip. If you work in a French restaurant — the Americans, you typically despise, but they love the way Americans tip.

DUCKWORTH: The psychology of tipping is very interesting. There is some research that suggests that, when people tip, they do so, in part, because it makes them feel like they’re generous. So, that argues for tipping, by the way, because nobody feels generous when they’re charged a compulsory fee. You could say it’s like a Japanese Kabuki play where we’re all pretending. But still, I feel generous. Even when there’s those annoying defaults when you pay for anything these days — like handing you a bottle of water. But, like, I tip usually 20 percent or more. I feel like I have signaled virtue to myself — if not to the other person. And I think that is one of the reasons why, honestly, this social norm, as bizarre as it is, has prevailed, at least in certain countries.

DUBNER: When you’re compelled to tip for situations that typically were not tipping circumstances, like you mentioned, I do it, but I don’t feel virtuous. There, I feel compelled. Like, Starbucks. You order a coffee. It’s, let’s say, 3 dollars, and I’m not sure if Starbucks, per se, does this.

DUCKWORTH: Starbucks actually hasn’t had tipping. They are just starting to, because they’re unionizing, and they are demanding tipping.

DUBNER: So, take a Starbucks proxy. And, when you sign your little digital finger swish, let’s say there is a tipping menu for 15, 20, 25 percent, I do it, always, because there’s social pressure. There’s someone standing there, and you don’t want to be the person that you feel they are going to grumble about and say, “Oh, God, that guy didn’t tip.” And, again, it’s only a couple of dollars, but when it’s a compulsory tip like that in a situation that you’re not used to — and I think this is where Phil’s getting to.

John List, the economist at the University of Chicago, who is a kind of friend of the Freakonomics Radio project — John was chief economist at — first, Uber, and then at Lyft. And he was heavily involved in creating the tipping programs at both those places. Originally, there was no tip. And then they started to do it in certain circumstances as a randomized trial to measure what happens. And what John and his colleagues found was that most people don’t tip in that circumstance. A very small share of Uber riders — I think it was 1 percent — tipped on every ride. So, if you think about, like, one out of a hundred, you say, “That sounds nuts, because in a restaurant, probably 99.5 out of 100.” And I think what that gets to is the importance of framing and the importance of social norms. It is typical for tipping to happen in a restaurant.

DUCKWORTH: Not just social norms, but signaling. I think the big reveal, as it were, when you do Uber or Lyft tipping is that it’s truly private. Nobody can see it. You’re not even going to get quote-unquote “credit” for it. Nobody’s going to say, “What a nice guy, that Stephen Dubner.”

DUBNER: Part of it is the publicness of it, but part of it is just an understanding of the construct, which is: Most people know, in America, that when you go into a restaurant, there is, at the end, a tip. And we’ve also been educated that that is how the servers get paid. And now, that is an incredibly problematic way to do things. Let’s say I own the restaurant. I’m the employer. I’m basically saying to you, the customer, “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to pay the people who prep and cook the food. But you’re going to pay the people who bring you the food.” That is kind of kooky. And it’s considered by many people to be discriminatory. The kinds of people who get a lot more money for tips often have characteristics that are different from the people who don’t get as much. There are gender differences. There are racial differences. There are age differences, and so on. So, does that seem fair? Another thing is: If people are essentially compelled to tip, let’s say, 15 to 25 percent on a restaurant bill, and theoretically that money is going to the people who serve you the food, is that fair to the people in the kitchen who are cooking your food and are just getting paid a set wage of, let’s say, 15 bucks an hour? But with tips, you might end up making 30 dollars an hour. So, that’s what’s led there to be a little bit of a revolution that I can’t say has succeeded so much.

DUCKWORTH: I was going to say: Very little.

DUBNER: But it’s happening. There’s one restaurateur in New York City named Danny Meyer. His restaurant group is called the Union Square Hospitality Group. They have a bunch of restaurants in New York. Some of them are fairly well known — Union Square Cafe.

DUCKWORTH: I have to say, I love Danny Meyer. I read Setting the Table.

DUBNER: Ah, it’s a really good book.

DUCKWORTH: It’s so good. But keep going, because I think his tipping innovation is so interesting as a case study.

DUBNER: Right. So, really, his pitch is that what he does with these restaurants is not really about food. It’s about hospitality. And some of them are very high-end restaurants, but they deliberately try to make customers feel unintimidated. By the way, in addition to these restaurants, he also helped create Shake Shack, which is where the real money is.

DUCKWORTH: That has definitely made a dent in the universe.

DUBNER: It has, and Shake Shack is now a global chain. With the core restaurants though, he realized a few things. One is: Relying on tipping as a means of paying your servers is a little bit weird and wonky. As I said, it can distribute the gains in a very inequitable way.

DUCKWORTH: The people in the kitchen who are not getting tips.

DUBNER: Although many restaurants do pool tips and distribute them to the kitchen. And then many restaurants also cheat their employees out of tips. There are all different kinds of versions. But one really interesting labor market outcome was that a lot of people were going to culinary schools to learn to be chefs, and they would get out with a whole bunch of debt, and then they would be lucky enough to land a job in a good restaurant. And they’d realize that they were going to be basically prepping the mirepoix for two hours at 14 dollars an hour, while someone just like them would be waltzing in, and being a server, and earning 40, 50, 60 dollars an hour.

DUCKWORTH: Or more! A server in a very busy, high-end restaurant could just make a ton of money.

DUBNER: You can. And so, what he found — and what other restaurateurs found — was that it was really hard to find good kitchen people, because the best-trained kitchen people would realize that they’re just not going to make a very good living. And so, he made an argument for what he called “hospitality included” — no tipping. And it’s been hard. I think the reason is that people get used to systems. We’re used to tipping for some things and not to other things. So, you know, when Phil is talking about his discomfort with paying for something that he feels you shouldn’t have to pay for, I totally get that, because— I mean, Angie, you know this probably better than 99.9 percent of the people in the world: We are used to the things we’re used to and the things that we’re not used to seem a little foreign, and intimidating, and alienating. It can be really hard to change your habits.

DUCKWORTH: So, habits — you know, “This is the way I’ve always done things. This is the way I’ve been brought up to do things” — that’s an element of tipping. But I think, in addition to the psychology of habit, there’s a whole other layer here. When Danny Meyer stopped doing the innovative practice of “hospitality included” — they’re going back to tipping — I think it’s because when you try to change a practice that is prevailing in culture and you, on your own, are going to change what you do in your restaurant, or your washroom, you’re not only going against people’s individual habits, but you’re just trying to change one part of the ecosystem without changing the rest of the ecosystem. And I want to give you an example. So, I have long wanted to teach my classes pass/fail.

DUBNER: Ooh.

DUCKWORTH: Because I felt like my students were too focused on the grades. Also, I hate grading, so I thought it was going be a win-win. And I convinced the deans at my university to let me teach a mandatory pass/fail class — that you can’t even get a grade if you wanted to. And I’ve been doing that for a few years, and here is the result of this grand experiment: I really don’t think it works. And it’s not just because students have been in the habit of getting grades and there’s a social norm. It’s that I am not changing the ecosystem — all of their other classes have grades. And so, when I’m the one professor who says my class is pass/fail, that means when you — busy, tired, stressed-out undergraduate — have a choice between doing the reading for my pass/fail class or studying for your graded classes, you are, of course, going to choose your graded classes. And so, like Danny Meyer, I switched back.

DUBNER: So, you saw a behavior change, then, among your students? You saw less effort put in.

DUCKWORTH: I sort of christened a class and made it pass/fail all at the same time, so I can’t compare to the same class with grading. But I’ll just say that I was constantly sending these babysitting emails to remind them the importance of reading and getting things in on time so that we didn’t have to nag them. I determined from that experience that this experiment doesn’t really work, and it’s not because of the students, and it’s not because of me, really. It’s just because you cannot create your own micro-culture within a macro-culture that hasn’t changed.

DUBNER: It makes me think of— Do you know that paper by Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini?

DUCKWORTH: “A Fine Is a Price.”

DUBNER: “A Fine Is a Price.” Yes.

DUCKWORTH: I know that paper. It’s brilliant.

DUBNER: In Israel, these child daycare centers were having a hard time with parents picking up their kids late. So, they decided to institute a fine of, I think it was roughly three dollars American per late pickup. And once that happened, the share of late pickups went not down, but up.

DUCKWORTH: A lot!

DUBNER: Because the parents could just say, “Well, you know, now they’re just charging me for something that I want anyway, and I’ll pay three dollars, and it just gets added onto the bill.”

DUCKWORTH: They were like, “Wow, that is an awesome rate for childcare. Yes, please!”

DUBNER: So, again, when you change the price of something, when you change the incentives, behavior changes.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela break down the surprisingly interesting history of public toilets in America.

DUCKWORTH: It could be that I am the reason why there are no paid bathrooms in the United States anymore.

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Before we return to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about tipping and public bathrooms, let’s hear some of your views on the subject. We asked listeners to share their best and worst experiences with public restrooms. Here’s what you said:

Jennifer WHITE: Hi, this is Jennifer from Cleveland, Tennessee. When I was a little girl, my mother would take me to the downtown department store. And if we had to use the bathroom, it cost a dime to open the stall. If she didn’t have a dime, I was the lucky one that got to crawl under the door and let her in.

Natasha GORE: This is Natasha Gore. As a frequent traveler and a woman who anticipates a line for the restroom, I appreciate the airports that have been thoughtful in the design of the entry and exit pathways. It’s very frustrating to queue up in a tiny, tiny hallway that’s both an entry and an exit. Equally frustrating are buildings that stick to the women’s/men’s binary and have the same number of women’s restrooms as men’s, even though those of us who can’t go standing up require more time in there — so, therefore, should probably have more stalls. In fact, some buildings, depending on how old they are, actually have more men’s restrooms than women’s, harkening back to a time when there were fewer women in office buildings and the like. Needless to say, I’ve learned how to go quickly, and I’ve learned how to hold it if necessary.

Mike KRAFINSKI: My name is Mike, and my wife and I recently visited San Antonio, Texas, and we had dinner at the Pearl’s Supper restaurant, which is adjacent to the Emma Hotel. The bathroom for the restaurant is actually in the hotel. And if heaven had a toilet, it could only wish it was as nice as the Emma Hotel’s is. We took a one-hour boat ride back to the Pearl on another day to, amongst other things, use that restroom. If you ever have the opportunity, it’s definitely worth a visit.

That was, respectively: Jennifer White, Natasha Gore, and Mike Krafinski. Thanks to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s response to the question sent in by a listener named Phil.

DUBNER: Phil had a number of problems. One of his problems, he said, was he didn’t have the coin. Here, I agree with Phil, because if you’re going to charge for something, you have to make it frictionless. We’re working on an episode right now on Freakonomics Radio about public transit. And there are those who argue public transit should be free, because it’s the way that a place functions and don’t you want to increase mobility? Now, whether it should be free or not, one thing that everybody agrees on is that it should be easy to pay for it. But the fact is that most public transit systems, unless you’re very familiar with them, it’s not very easy.

DUCKWORTH: I literally cannot figure out how to take public transportation in Philadelphia. I just walk everywhere. I take Ubers when I need to.

DUBNER: And then, if you have to go to the bathroom, you just pee on the street corner.

DUCKWORTH: Exactly!

DUBNER: Speaking of peeing, I find there are two kinds of people in the world. There are peeing-in-the shower people and not-peeing-in-the shower people. Which are you?

DUCKWORTH: I am definitely not a peeing-in-the-shower person.

DUBNER: I’m with you there. Where there’s a shower, because of the way plumbing works, there’s usually a toilet very close by. I’m a pretty lazy person, but even I’m not that lazy. We don’t have good data on peeing-in-the-shower frequency, but I am looking here at a survey. And this is a survey asking people directly. So, the numbers are probably higher. 62 percent of Americans say they’ve peed in a shower. What percent of Americans would you say have peed in a swimming pool?

DUCKWORTH: Well, okay. Let’s start easy. Peed in the ocean — I think anybody who has been in the ocean has peed in the ocean.

DUBNER: That’s a pleasure.

DUCKWORTH: I know, it’s great.

DUBNER: That’s the reason you go to the beach, is to pee in the ocean.

DUCKWORTH: But in a pool? That’s terrible.

DUBNER: I will tell you that 36 percent of Americans, according to this YouGov survey, have urinated in a swimming pool.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, God. I swim every week, and this is really disturbing.

DUBNER: Not anymore you don’t. All right, let’s get back to Phil. So, Phil is complaining about not having the money. And I agree with him that, if you’re going to charge people for any activity, you should try to eliminate the friction. And so, these bathrooms that you have to have a coin of a certain denomination — I get why he objects to that. Look, maybe this is a good business opportunity for Phil. Charge for going to the bathroom, but reduce the friction. Maybe — oh! Oh, this is a good mash-up. Maybe it could be a “crypto-potty” company.

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know what crypto really is, despite many attempts.

DUBNER: It’s okay. Even crypto people don’t know what crypto is, and that doesn’t stop them. The short answer is: There’s a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of money flowing into crypto investments, including by the biggest venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. Where that money will end up going and who it will end up benefiting is a big open question about which you can hear a lot more on Freakonomics Radio soon. But if you did want to start a new firm, Phil, to take advantage of your frustration — in fact, I think the name of your company is Cryptopotty. And I bet you could be worth five billion dollars by the end of the month. So, you can have that idea, Phil. But in terms of the actual problem here of having to pay to do something that your body requires, I empathize with Phil’s frustration, because that just doesn’t seem fair. What would you say if I told you, however, that America used to be a place that had thousands and thousands of toilets that charged you money to go to the bathroom? Would you believe me, or no?

DUCKWORTH: There was a time in America’s history that there were public toilets, where you had to pay to go in?

DUBNER: Just like Europe. Yeah.

DUCKWORTH: Certainly not in recent times.

DUBNER: What year were you born?

DUCKWORTH: 52 years ago, 1970.

DUBNER: So, interestingly, 1970 — in that very year — the U.S. had more than 50,000 pay toilets. By 1980, there were almost none. That’s according to a 2014 article I’m looking at in Pacific Standard. There were a pair of brothers in, I believe, Pennsylvania.

DUCKWORTH: This is going to have something causal with my birth here in Philadelphia.

DUBNER: It could be!

DUCKWORTH: It could be that I am the reason why there are no paid bathrooms in the United States anymore. But, go on. Let’s see.

DUBNER: There were a pair of brothers named Ira and Michael Gessel. They were in high school, and this was 1968. There were pay toilets that cost 10 cents each. And they decided that wasn’t right. And they and some friends formed a group called the Committee to End Paid Toilets in America, or CEPTIA, which is a very good name.

DUCKWORTH: Hmm.

DUBNER: They had a song, they had slogans, they had a newsletter. Now, there was already legislation in different places proposed to get rid of this, but they brought a lot of attention to it. They held a press conference in Chicago. And shortly thereafter — this was 1973 — Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago announced that he would remove pay toilets from the airports there. The city of Chicago ended up getting rid of them overall, and then state by state followed. That was pretty much the beginning of the end. Now, what’s interesting to me is, there was one problem, which was that it required money to use a bathroom, and people didn’t like that. And then there was a version of a solution, which was: “Let’s eliminate the money.” But the new solution didn’t really happen. In other words, if you’re going to get rid of pay toilets, theoretically, you want to have—

DUCKWORTH: You would have free toilets.

DUBNER: If the governments around the country are the ones who were striking down what, essentially, was a market for toilets, and they were saying, “Well, that’s sort of a market failure.” But they introduced maybe an even bigger market failure, because the governments are supposed to provide these now as a public good. But in many places — as anyone who’s ever been to a city, walking around, needing to use a bathroom—

DUCKWORTH: Like New York!

DUBNER: Yeah, like New York. It hasn’t worked.

DUCKWORTH: So, there’s no toilets.

DUBNER: Right. So, you have few, or bad, public toilets, and private toilets in restaurants, and museums, and so on, that are theoretically inaccessible. Although, you know, you learn your tricks.

DUCKWORTH: Everyone’s snuck in at a time in their life.

DUBNER: So, if anything, I think Phil’s email should encourage policymakers to think harder about creating a better middle ground. You know, New York City has tried to create better, and more abundant, public toilets. There’s this big movement — not long after I first moved here — to install these self-cleaning, public pay toilets.

DUCKWORTH: Whatever happened with that?

DUBNER: The first one opened in January 2008, and The New York Times called it a “25-cent journey to the future.” And there were supposed to be 20 of these automatic pay toilets placed around the city. I guess, this was phase one, because 20 isn’t that many toilets. By the way, did you know that the U.S. ranks close to last on the public toilet index, which is the number of public toilets per capita. We have eight toilets per 100,000 people. We’re tied with Botswana. Iceland, by the way, is No. 1, if you ever need to pee, Phil. 56 toilets per 100,000 residents. So, this New York plan to roll out all these automated self-cleaning toilets — there were 20 that were supposed to be installed. The five of the 20 that were installed are still in use, I believe, but the 15 others, which the city bought, were never actually even installed, and, apparently, they’re still in a warehouse in Queens. This is according to the news website Gothamist.

DUCKWORTH: Why?

DUBNER: I think it’s because the incentives are misaligned here, which is that — as Phil noted, and as the CEPTIA people noted — they wanted to get rid of one problem, but then the incentives weren’t really strong enough to create a solution in the other direction. You know, when people wanted to get rid of public toilets, there was a lot of pressure from other groups. There were feminist organizations who said it’s not fair. There were student activists who said it wasn’t fair. And so, to me — I don’t mean to be cynical about this, but — it’s a little bit of an example of how well-intended social justice can both work and not work. So, it worked in that they got rid of the pay toilets, but it sort of backfired in that the availability of good public toilets has not come about.

DUCKWORTH: So, I just want to understand. It sounds like there was phase one. There was supposed to be phase two. Nobody thought New York would be served by 20 toilets in total. So, it was a pilot. But they didn’t even finish the pilot. They only got through five of the 20, because the program seemed like it wasn’t going to work, so they didn’t need to even deploy the remaining 15? Or what?

DUBNER: I don’t think that’s why, but I don’t know why. My guess would be that, in a place like New York, it can be complicated to do things, and then there’s a change in administration, or there’s a crisis, and it gets on somebody’s back burner, and it just doesn’t happen. I can imagine turning this problem that Phil had entirely on its head and think about places where there’s really very little in the way of good public toilets, and where there is, therefore, a lot of defecation and urination in the open, and that’s huge health hazard. So, in a case like that, we should probably flip it and pay people to use the bathroom.

DUCKWORTH: I will say, of all these things, human beings are complicated little suckers. And I think the lesson here is: You don’t really know what’s going to work in practice just because something works in theory. Take those two Pennsylvanians who said, “This is a violation of our civil liberties that we have to pay for a bathroom. Let’s eradicate all of them.” I don’t know that they would have been able to predict that nobody would be replacing them with free ones. So, it just speaks to, basically, trying stuff out, seeing what happens, and then trying again. Like, I think after New York’s failed experiment with those paid toilets, maybe policymakers needed to say, “Okay, now what do we do?” Maybe there could have been something else.

DUBNER: In the meantime, I suggest to Phil — or, actually, to Phil’s wife, the European one — that just to avoid this rather extravagant issue, that the next time they go to Europe, that she buys him a pouch and a lanyard that he can hang around his neck, and it just becomes his little “potty fund.” And so he doesn’t have to dance around trying to dig out coins, and he can just pee in peace. I think that would improve Phil’s life, and maybe yours and mine, Angie, too.

DUCKWORTH: I think that’s an excellent suggestion. From my reading of Phil’s quite elaborate email, I’m guessing that a lanyard with some pocket change is not quite what he will consider a satisfying response, Stephen, but it is worth piloting.

No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. Before we move on to the fact-check, we’d like to give listener Phil the last word.

Phil MITCHELL: Thank you for answering my question. I enjoyed your reactions to my ridiculous story. My wife and I couldn’t stop laughing. I hope I can count on both of you to be early investors in my Cryptopotty venture. Also, I do love to visit Iceland, where I’ve never had to pay to use the washroom.

And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.

In the first half of the show, Stephen says that he thinks that 99.5 percent of people tip at restaurants, but according to a 2021 survey by CreditCards.com, only 75 percent of respondents said they always tip at full-service restaurants.

Then, Stephen and Angela express their horror at individuals who pee in the shower. As a New Yorker, I would be remiss if I didn’t cite perhaps the world’s most infamous shower urinator, Seinfeld’s George Costanza, who said, quote, “It’s all pipes! What’s the difference?!”

Later, Stephen says that Ira and Michael Gessel, the duo who founded the Committee to End Paid Toilets in America, were from Pennsylvania. The brothers were actually from Dayton, Ohio. But they were inspired to become activists based on their experience with pay toilets stationed along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Also, Stephen says that the United States ranks close to the bottom of the World Public Toilet Index — a tool created by bathroom supply company QS Supplies to measure the number of public toilets per 100,000 people in a given country. It’s true that the US is tied with Botswana with 8 toilets per 100,000 people. But we’re actually sort of middle-of-the-road when it comes to the 84 countries included in the Index. Some of the countries that rank lowest on the list — with 1 public toilet per 100,000 people — include: Uganda, Cuba, Turkey, and Cambodia.

Finally, Stephen and Angela wonder why New York City’s self-cleaning public pay toilet initiative paused after only five of the pods were installed. According to the website Gothamist, the Department of Transportation claims that the majority of toilet sites proposed were not feasible due to either lack of community support or location restrictions such as lack of access to a sewer or available sidewalk space.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss Occam’s Razor and the human love of simplicity.

DUCKWORTH: Why have we evolved to look for single causes as opposed to multiple causes, if the world really does work in a multiple-cause way?

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions. For that episode, we want to hear about a time when complexity snuck up and bit you. What’s something you thought would be simple, that turned out to be anything but? To share your thoughts, send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com with the subject line “Not So Simple.” Make sure to record in a quiet, indoor space with your mouth close to the phone, and please keep your thoughts to under a minute.

*          *          *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, Freakonomics, M.D., and Off Leash. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This show was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had help on this episode from Lyric Bowditch and Jacob Clemente. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrell, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to nsq@freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!

DUBNER: I bet you eat or drink in the shower.

DUCKWORTH: Yes. And what in particular?

DUBNER: A nice plate of cacio e pepe?

DUCKWORTH: Nope. It’s fruit. It tastes better to me. Try it. It’s much better than peeing in the shower.

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Sources

  • Uri Gneezy, professor of economics and strategic management at U.C. San Diego
  • John List, professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
  • Danny Meyer, C.E.O. of the Union Square Hospitality Group.
  • Aldo Rustichini, professor of economics at the University of Minnesota.

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