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Episode Transcript

Tim HARFORD: The British Prime Minister, David Cameron. When he was leader of the opposition — he was trying to get elected — he wanted to convince people that he was a soft, caring guy, and he installed a little windmill on his house.  

That’s Tim Harford. He’s an economist and author who lives in Oxford, England.

HARFORD: Now it turns out wind power can be pretty effective. But you need a really, really big windmill in a really windy location to be efficient. These little windmills, especially in an urban environment, where you don’t get a consistent flow of wind, they generate an incredibly small amount of energy. Really, really ineffective. Indeed, there’s a fantastic example from the British physicist David MacKay, who points to building-top windmills in Japan that actually have little electric motors in them to keep them spinning around, because otherwise they would look really stupid on top of the building and not actually moving. So actually, these windmills cost energy.

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You will note that David Cameron did get elected Prime Minister of the U.K.. Whether his little windmill had anything to do with it – tough to say. But, while it may not always be easy being green, these days it’s certainly attractive. Rooftop windmills. Those “I am not a plastic bag” reusable shopping bags. And a certain make of automobile …

[SOUTH PARK: “Smug Alert!”]

GERALD: Hey there, Richard!

RICHARD: Oh hey, Gerald – new car?

GERALD: Yeah, it’s a hybrid. I just – I just couldn’t sit back and be part of destroying the earth anymore.

RICHARD: Well … good for you.

GERALD: Oh! Thaaanks!

That’s from the TV show South Park, poking fun at how some people get a little bit sanctimonious when they start driving a hybrid car. In this episode, the car is called a “Pious.” A little bit like a … Prius, maybe? The message is clear: helping the planet is nice; but being seen helping the planet is really nice. Now, this might not sound like something that economists study. But there’s this idea that they call “signaling theory.” Here’s Robin Hanson of George Mason University.

Robin HANSON: Signaling theory is another way of talking about showing off. Or trying to present your best face. It’s all about what we do to look good.  Or at least to not look bad. So more generally, signaling is about managing your image; it’s about keeping in mind that other people are watching you and interpreting you. So, it’s not so much about showing off your ability to be really smart or to be well dressed or to be athletic. It could be about showing your concern, showing your loyalty, showing your attention.

DUBNER: No offense to you or your fellow economists, but why are you guys looking at this?  This seems — don’t you have other, more economics-themed problems? Why have you guys gotten involved in this, and maybe even gotten good at figuring out signaling?

HANSON: There’s a big world of interesting things to look at and managing our appearance is actually a lot of what we humans do. Trying to understand, business, trying to understand jobs, school, even medicine. If you don’t realize that people are trying to manage their image, you miss out on a lot of what’s going on.

All right, so here’s our question for today: For people who lean green, how much value do they place on being seen leaning green?

Steve SEXTON: My name is Steve Sexton. I am a Ph.D. student at U.C. Berkeley studying agricultural and resource economics.

Alison SEXTON: I’m Alison Sexton. I’m a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota studying health and information economics.

DUBNER All right, so I’m a little suspicious, you share a last name, are you related to each other perhaps?   

S. SEXTON: We are, we also shared a womb.

That’s right. Alison and Steve Sexton are twins. And they’re both budding economists. And guess what their parents do? Yep: economists.

S. SEXTON: Oh, it was very exciting as you might imagine. All of our friends couldn’t wait to come over to dinner with us.

A. SEXTON: We like to joke that we have a family plan to become a one-family consulting firm, kind of like the Partridge Family for economics.

Alison Sexton worked briefly for the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis. Steve Sexton has a somewhat less sedentary hobby.

S. SEXTON: Yes, in addition to trying to finish up my Ph.D. here at Berkeley, I’m also training for the London Olympics as a triathlete.

DUBNER: How good are you? Like, when you say training for the Olympics, that means that there’s reasonable expectation that you might actually be there?

S. SEXTON:  Yes, I ended 2010 as the third American in the Olympics points rankings, and we get to take three people. So, that’s by no means … by no means have I made it yet. But I certainly have a shot at it.

As economists, the Sextons know all about signaling theory, particularly the behavior known as conspicuous consumption. Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase more than 100 years ago. More and more Americans were growing rich — and it became important to show off that wealth. Today? There’s still plenty of conspicuous consumption — but the Sextons noted a trend that updates the old model: that is, not showing off your flashy  car or flashy jewelry, but showing off your environmental bona fides by, say, driving a car that’s plainly a hybrid.

S. SEXTON: Psychologists have defined competitive altruism as a sort of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses type concept but applied to pro-social behavior, or efforts to make society better. So, I’ll be competing with my neighbors to donate to a charity for instance or to reduce energy conservation, or environmental impacts.  

Or, as the Sextons call it, “conspicuous conservation.”

S. SEXTON: Right, because conspicuous consumption, they’re investing in products that provide the same functionality as cheaper alternatives, but they’re flashier, or just because they cost more, or what have you. That can be wasteful and leave nobody better off. But in this case with conspicuous conservation, because the costly effort that individuals are undertaking is providing benefits to society, this rat race could actually be a good thing.  

DUBNER: Talk to me for just a minute about how the idea came about. Was it, as you pulled into a Whole Foods parking lot and saw that half the cars were Priuses, or Prii? How did it happen?

A. SEXTON: Well, I think that part of it did come from Steve, who lives in Berkeley. And he did notice a lot of Priuses on the road, and he didn’t notice a whole lot of other hybrid cars, such as Honda Civics, and wondered why. And there’s been surveys of Prius owners asking them why they buy their Prius, and far more common they answer that it says something about them, than mention the fuel efficiency of it. So, Steve was actually back visiting me last year for Easter, and we were talking about this idea of signaling your environmental concerns by driving a Prius, and how we could create an economic model to test for it and see if that signal exists.

So the Sexton twins were looking to measure the signal sent out by people who drive hybrid cars. By their count, there were 24 different hybrids on the market – but the Prius was a market hog, the runaway winner, with a whopping 48 percent of the hybrid market. Why?

S. SEXTON: The Honda Civic hybrid looks like a regular Honda Civic. The Ford Escape hybrid looks like a Ford Escape, except that these cars have a small badge on them that indicates their type as a hybrid. But the styling of the car is identical whether it’s a hybrid version of the model, or the conventional drive version of the model.

But Toyota’s Prius doesn’t look like any other Toyota — or any other car, period.

S. SEXTON: And so, our hypothesis is that if the Prius looked like a Toyota Camry or a Toyota Corolla that it wouldn’t be as popular as it is. And so what we set out to do in this paper is to test that empirically.

Okay, so how do you do that? The paper the Sextons would end up writing is called “Conspicuous Conservation: The Prius Effect and Willingness to Pay for Environmental Bona Fides.” The first step: pick a different hybrid car to act as a control against the Prius.

S. SEXTON: It’s comparably priced to the Honda Civic hybrid. So, throughout sort of thinking about this project, we’ve kind of used the Honda Civic hybrid as our control for the Prius. It doesn’t have that unique signal, but it’s otherwise very similar, not a perfect control, but it’s very similar to the Prius except that it doesn’t have a unique design.

Okay: similar price; similar fuel efficiency; but different design. So what’s the Prius’s unique design worth as a signal to the outside world that you are burning less fuel than everyone else?

S. SEXTON: So, if your neighbors care about the environment, then sending that signal can be very valuable. But if your neighbors don’t care about the environment, then why do you care to send a signal to them that you care about the environment? And so you can think about whether you would rather drive a Prius in Berkeley or in Crawford, Texas, for example.

Keep in mind that before the Sextons came up with this idea, South Park was all over it:

KYLE: Dad, we feel like your new car is changing you.

GERALD: Yes, it certainly is!

KYLE: We’re thinking that a lot of people in town are starting to take offense of your actions. We’re feeling you’ve started to become alienated from some of your friends.

GERALD: Well, I totally agree, Kyle.

KYLE: You do?

GERALD: Yes. A lot of people in town just aren’t ready to drive hybrid cars.

KYLE: Right! O.K., good!

GERALD: And that’s why I’ve talked it over with your mother and we’ve decided to move!

KYLE: What?!

GERALD: We need to be where everyone is motivated and progressive like us. Start getting your things packed, boys. The Broflovski family is moving to San Francisco!

In other words, if you’re a green-leaning person, the signal of a Prius might be more valuable if you live in a green-leaning neighborhood than if you live in a place where environmentalism isn’t such a big deal.

The Sextons wanted to know if A: this were true, and B: if so, just how valuable is the Prius signal? So they set out to gather some data on hybrid car sales in different places. They chose Colorado and Washington, two states with a lot of political diversity, and got hold of vehicle-registration data and voting records. The vehicle data told them what cars were being bought where and the voting records stood as a proxy for how “green” each part of the state was — the idea being that “greener” communities vote more Democrat than Republican. When the Sextons looked at the numbers, they found that hybrids indeed sold disproportionately well in the greener Zip codes – in Boulder and Seattle, for instance. But was that true for all hybrids? What about the Honda Civic hybrid, the Sextons’ control car?

A. SEXTON: We did a test to see if the market share for Honda Civics also increased in greener Zip codes. And we found no statistical effect. And in fact, in a few of the regressions we found a negative effect.

But the Prius? Those green ZIP codes were crawling with Prii.

S. SEXTON: And through our econometric model we’re able to determine what share of the Prius’s market share is due to its unique styling, the Prius signal, or the conspicuous conservation effect. And then we’re able, using other studies that have determined how responsive vehicle demand is to prices, we’re able to basically trace out a demand curve, and estimate the willingness to pay for that single attribute of the Prius, that is how much people are willing to pay just to signal that they are green.

DUBNER: Right, so how big is the effect? How big is the conspicuous conservation effect then in these places?

A. SEXTON: So for Colorado, we measure that it accounts for about between 21 and 23 percent of the market share. And in Washington we measure that it accounts for about ten to seventeen percent of the market share. So, this translates into a willingness to pay in Colorado for between about $1,000 and $4,000, and in Washington, a willingness to pay between $500 and $1,300.

All right, this needs a bit of clarification. The market-share numbers the Sextons are talking about — that’s not how much of the market the Prius has; it’s how much additional market share the Prius has because of its unique hybrid look. And that “willingness to pay” figure they’re talking about — that doesn’t mean people actually pay that much more for the Prius — they don’t. “Willingness to pay” is just economist-speak for how much the Prius effect is worth to people in terms of feeling good about themselves, being seen by others in a positive light, things like that.

DUBNER: What do you know about how intentional the Prius design was in terms of setting itself apart at an obvious hybrid? In other words, did Toyota understand conspicuous conservation well before you guys even thought to look into it?

S. SEXTON: I think there is evidence that Toyota understood conspicuous conservation before we did. They instructed their car designers to make the Prius unique, and said that they didn’t care what it looked like so long as it looked different. It suggested that they did expect that they could count on this conspicuous conservation effect to drive sales.  

Doug COLEMAN: Well, that’s right. I mean, the design is everything about Prius, right?  Everybody understands that the car is both efficient and it has a unique design that stands out. Nothing else looks like it on the road.

That’s Doug Coleman, a Toyota marketing manager.

COLEMAN: You see a Prius. You know what it is. You know it stands for hybrid.  And there’s really no other car that stands for hybrid. So having something that’s unique is really important to our buyers.

The Sextons, convinced that the Toyota Prius represents the height of conspicuous conservation, went looking for other examples.

A. SEXTON: One of the more common ones that we see here in California is people putting solar panels up on their house. In fact, there’s a number of cited cases where people will put solar paneling on a shadier side of their house because it’s the street side, so people will be able to see it.

DUBNER: Now, do you think  the consultant, the installer says to them, “This is not going to really do as much for generating power as you would like, or as much as if you put it on the sunnier side of your house.” Do you think those conversations happen?

S. SEXTON: We know that they do. I haven’t been at those conversations, but  do understand that those conversations go on, that the experts advise, “Here’s how to maximize the benefits from your solar panels,” and the homeowners say, “Well no, I actually want it on that side of the house.”

DUBNER: In other words, the side where my neighbors will see that I have solar panels.

S. SEXTON: On the street side of the house, right?  And again, we don’t judge that, that’s fine. We don’t take a position on that. But if that kind of an effect is occurring, then it has implications for both firms that might want to market these types of products as well as for governments that might want to maximize the benefit from investment in those types of products.

DUBNER: Could it be that people are engaging in conspicuous conservation instead of doing less visible, but more pragmatic things? Like, you know, instead of putting solar panels on the shady side of my house, I could better insulate my walls and doors, which would actually be very effective, but nobody’s going to see it. So is that kind of the problem that you’re trying to address?

S. SEXTON: Sure. The conventional wisdom among energy economists is that the low-hanging fruit, the easiest way to achieve energy conservation is through those inconspicuous investments that you talked about, and boosting the insulation in the home, window sealing treatments, energy-efficient appliances and so forth. Those are the most cost-effective ways to reduce energy consumption. But of course, none of those can be seen by one’s neighbors unless they’re brought into the house. But they’re certainly not visible from the street side.

But if you consider there’s a high concentration of greens in the Bay Area where it’s foggy most of the summer. The sun doesn’t really come out in Berkeley; in fact, that’s why I try to leave Berkeley when I can. But the sun does shine on the rooftops of all the Republicans, for lack of a better term “browns,” that live in the Central Valley. They get a lot of sun during the summer, but they’re going to be less inclined to install the rooftop solar panels on their homes. So we might like to imagine a creative program whereby your Berkeley green who doesn’t get very much sun in the summer could pay to install rooftop solar on the home of a Bakersfield brown, and therefore, again, maximize the effect of those conservation dollars. Or get more energy conservation, or I guess energy production in this case out of the solar panels. The problem with this of course is that then that Berkeley green isn’t able to demonstrate to their neighbor that they’re making this investment in conservation.

DUBNER: Well, then you just have to be able to buy a big, you know, billboard in your yard that says that my solar panels are on a Republican’s house in Bakersfield. And then everybody would be happy?

S. SEXTON: Well, I mean, so the answer is no. And actually that’s an important characteristic of the Prius is that it has this unique design, but it’s not flashy. Toyota has successfully marketed the uniqueness of it as furthering its environmental benefits, as enhancing its environmental benefits. It looks the way it does to maximize aerodynamics. So, it is different from having even, you know, you could imagine a bumper sticker for Sierra Club or something like that on your car that would be somewhat visible, but that’s just kind of screaming, “Hey look at me, look at how green I am.” Whereas the Prius isn’t a billboard, it’s just a green car.

DUBNER: What are the implications of your research then for policy? Do you want to encourage or incentivize more inconspicuous conservation since you know that the conspicuous stuff will take care of itself?

A. SEXTON: So, right now, the government has subsidies for a number of different types of conservation acts, some conspicuous and some inconspicuous. But our results would suggest that perhaps government policies should focus on the inconspicuous such as window ceilings and air fans. That perhaps we can provide privately the conspicuous conservation efforts.

In other words: the conspicuous stuff, like the Prius, will take care of itself. Because in a way, it offers its own reward.

S. SEXTON: You’re trying to enhance your reputation or attain some kind of status by undertaking these personally costly actions that benefit others. And what’s interesting about these conceptions of altruism, both competitive altruism and reputational motivations for altruism is that they’re fundamentally selfish. And so they are consistent with traditional neo-classical economics, and they aren’t fundamentally altruism in the purest sense.

DUBNER: What do you guys drive?

A. SEXTON: I have for most of my graduate school career and before I was without vehicle. I just, this Christmas, got a hand-me-down Toyota Camry from my mom.

DUBNER: Not a hybrid.

A. SEXTON: Not hybrid.

DUBNER: All right.

A. SEXTON: It was before hybrids.

S. SEXTON: I drive an Audi A4.

DUBNER: Wait, wait, wait.

S. SEXTON: I knew I got myself in trouble there.

DUBNER: You’re a Ph.D. student. Did — were you selling crack for a few years between … is triathlon-ing very profitable?

S. SEXTON: In fact, no. I was fortunate to get a number of scholarships in my undergraduate studies, and my parents essentially turned over what was left of my college fund to me, and I blew it on a car in my first year of grad school.

DUBNER: Awesome. It’s not a hybrid, correct?

S. SEXTON: No, it is not.

HANSON:  I drive a Miata.

DUBNER: A Miata?

HANSON: Yeah, a sports car.

That’s Robin Hanson again, our signaling economist.

HANSON: I think it’s easy to pick on say, the conspicuous consumption of a conservationist’s image, and say, well, these people are driving a Prius because they’re trying to seem one way. But of course, all the other cars are trying to seem some other way, too.

DUBNER: Right. What are you trying to signal to the world when you drive your Miata?

HANSON: Well, I’m fun. I’m spontaneous. I don’t mind whizzing around. Maybe, I’m a little aggressive sometimes. I like to get places fast! I like the wind in my hair.

DUBNER: Is that all true?

HANSON: I think it’s roughly true. I’m happy to admit a lot of what I do is to manage my image.

DUBNER: You mentioned your Miata, Robin. I wonder — if we could climb deep inside the control center for Robin Hanson’s brain and his signaling activity, what else do we see? What’s some other signaling activity that you engage in?

HANSON: Economists like to point out there’s almost no chance that your vote is going to determine an election. So one of the things an economists like to do to show off that they’re clever economists is to not vote and to say to everybody, “Hey, I’m smarter than all the rest of you!  See, I understand that by voting, it’s not going to make any difference, anyway.” And we do a little of that too often. Say, you might not tip at a restaurant because you say, you know, “I’m never come back to this restaurant again.” And so economists often do things like that, they think through the strategy and they go out of their way of maybe being rude or a little thoughtless, in usual language, in order to show, “Hey I understand the strategy of this.” I’ve got to admit, I do that sometimes. I tip at restaurants, I’ll tell you that, but still —

DUBNER:  Do you vote?

HANSON: Sometimes.

DUBNER: Are you more likely to vote in a local election than a national election or vice versa?

HANSON:  Probably more likely to vote in a national election, but that’s also a common bias in a sense. In a sense, local elections matter more to your lives —

DUBNER: Yeah. Your vote is more likely to influence an outcome. So why you go the opposite, then?

HANSON: Because like most other people, voting in a national election helps you talk about it. If you want to sit around and talk with your friends and colleagues, you tend to talk about national politics. And so the voting is a way to help you talk about it, and to brag about your insight.

DUBNER: Do me a favor. Don’t go hating on Robin Hanson just because he votes for his sake, not out of civic duty.  And don’t go hating on the Sextons just because they’ve pointed out that you might drive a Prius for reasons that aren’t a hundred percent altruistic. Who among is us immune to vanity? Even … a venerable news organization like the BBC. Remember our economist/author friend Tim Harford? He also hosts a radio show that’s recorded at Bush House, one of the BBC’s main buildings in London.

HARFORD: And in the lobby of this office, there was an LED display screen, describing how much energy was being generated by solar cells on the roof of this building.

DUBNER: So tell us how many solar panels are up there on the roof of Bush House?

HARFORD: I don’t know, but it can’t be that many because it’s a central London building, there’s just not much room. It just seemed to me like a really weird place to put renewable energy source in the middle of a city, on a building in a very cold climate, which wasn’t getting a lot of light. You stick these photovoltaic cells on them, very expensive … what’s the gain? And of course, the gain is absolutely obvious. The gain is that you can put this big tote board in your lobby and all of visiting politicians and dignitaries of all descriptions, they all come to the lobby and they all see this tote board and they all think to themselves, “Wow BBC cares about climate change, it’s good to see.”

Coming up: A little less show, a little more yell. We leave conspicuous conservation behind and deconstruct the boo. Is it verbal vandalism? Or the last true expression of democracy?

[TEASE] He had keys missing on his little keyboard thing. And he was singing Stevie Wonder. That’s just something you don’t do. I said, “Boo, man.”

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DUBNER: I want you to introduce yourself by saying your name and what you do, first. 

Ed RENDELL: Sure. I’m Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania, former mayor of Philadelphia, former a lot of things.

DUBNER: And you know what we’re here to talk about today, right?

RENDELL: Absolutely.

DUBNER: All right. Now, we’ve all heard, or some of us have heard at least, that Philadelphia is actually the capital of sports booing, at least.

RENDELL: Philadelphia fans are incredibly passionate. They’re the best and most supportive fans in the world, but they will boo lack of effort, they will boo opposing players, they will boo bad calls by the umpires. And yes, they’ll boo Santa Claus.

The Santa Claus thing actually did happen. On December 15, 1968, during a Philadelphia Eagles football game. It helped cement the belief that Philadelphia is the town that boos the most, the best, the worst.

RENDELL: It was one of the last games of the year, it was right before Christmas, it was in Franklin Field, our old stadium. The Eagles had won two games that year, so the fans were just pissed off in general, and then the regular Santa Claus they were going  to use for this halftime show got sick. So, they went into the stands to find guys in Santa Claus suits and see if they’d volunteer. And the only guy they found was this scrawny-looking, dirty-suit guy. He was the worst looking Santa Claus I ever saw. And they put him up on the sled. I guess they must have paid him something, and carted him around. And everyone, myself included, threw snowballs at Santa.

The scrawny-looking Santa who got dragged down from the stands that night was named Frank Olivo. He was a native Philadelphian. Know how you could tell? Because here’s what Olivo told the Philadelphia Daily News after he got booed and pelted by snowballs. He said “I’d have done exactly the same thing if I wasn’t on the field.” Now keep in mind, Philadelphia’s not just any city … Ed Rendell knows that.

DUBNER: Well, if you wanted to get philosophical here for a minute you could say, you know, that Philadelphia was the cradle of the political part of the Revolution at least, and if we didn’t have a bunch of dissenters we wouldn’t have a country right now to start with.

RENDELL: True, I mean, Thomas Paine was the very first boo-bird. He did it on his pamphlets and they were remarkably effective in launching us on a new nation.

DUBNER: Good morning

Thomas Paine IMPERSONATOR: Good morning, sir.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner from New York.

IMPERSONATOR: Thomas Paine, sir. Very nice to meet you. I hope you’re being wary of the loyalists up there in New York.

DUBNER: Uh … this time of year, the loyalists aren’t much of a threat.

IMPERSONATOR: Oh. That’s very good.

In fact, I met up with a Thomas Paine impersonator in Philadelphia …

IMPERSONATOR: I like to write in taverns, actually.

DUBNER: So, just like people write in Starbucks today, you would sit down in a tavern.

IMPERSONATOR: Starbucks, I’m not familiar with that.

DUBNER: It’s a coffee chain from the future.

IMPERSONATOR: It’s a coffee house, I see.

In Thomas Paine’s time, there was a tradition — brought over from Europe — called “audience sovereignty.” Audiences were expected to react, to interact.  Huzzahs. Boos. Hisses.

IMPERSONATOR: Well it’s just a hiss like a snake. [HISSES] And you get a number of people doing it and it can carry quite a way.

This was nothing new, of course. Here’s Richard Butsch, a sociologist at Rider University.

Richard BUTSCH: From the ancient Greeks through the Elizabethan Shakespearean era, into the nineteenth century, the early nineteenth century in the U.S., what we find is that in all of those areas, as well as in non-Western areas, what you find is that the audiences were actually typically fairly active.

But today? Booing lives on in sports — in some places, at least. But overall, there’s been a real decline in booing. Come on, tell me the truth: don’t you sometimes have the urge — at the theater, maybe, or during a meeting with your thickheaded boss?

Robert LIPSYTE: I’m very conflicted about booing. On the one hand, I think it’s a kind of verbal vandalism and I’m always kind of annoyed when people boo around me. On the other hand, it’s kind of one of the last true expressions of democracy.

That’s Robert Lipsyte. He’s a writer who spent a lot of his career covering sports for the New York Times — especially the racial and social and political angles of sport. Unlike most of his peers, he didn’t come to this as a fan. His memoir is called An Accidental Sportswriter. He’s also an opera buff.

LIPSYTE: I saw the last few performances of Pavarotti a couple of years ago before he died. The voice was gone. And with the voice gone it was also really hard to now forgive the fact that he was of the school that was known as “park and bark,” you know, these kind of hefty opera singers, you know, who would just kind of stand there.

DUBNER: Not a lot of acting.

LIPSYTE: And sing. Not a lot of acting, not a lot of moving, Stephen. They would just park and bark. And he would do that. But in his final performances it was even beyond you know, the bark was gone. And the parking was almost ludicrous. In the final scene where he was to die — I remember in Tosca, he was to die at a firing squad. You know, he was shot twenty times and then he kind of lowered himself very slowly. He took a knee, as we say in football. And I remember thinking this is beyond feeling sorry for our hero or being pathetic, you know, this guy should not be doing this. If, you know, if there was any justice, people would boo. If I had any courage, I would get up and boo. But of course, I didn’t.

DUBNER: And you’re describing a scenario where according to the rules, and regulations, and morals of public performance that this guy should have been booed, right? And you’re saying he wasn’t?

LIPSYTE: He wasn’t.

DUBNER: And you didn’t. You were there, you had the opportunity?

LIPSYTE: I confess.

DUBNER: Had you bought your ticket or was it a freebie?

LIPSYTE: No, we were very expensive subscribers.

Let me say this: I’ve known Bob Lipsyte for quite a while and I like him a lot — I think he’s a great writer — but the fact is, he’s a grump. A grouch. If he won’t boo something as bad as Pavarotti’s park-and-bark — well, who is willing to cut loose?

Terry TEACHOUT: So they come out on stage and I go, BOOOOOOOOO!

Terry Teachout is a theater critic for the Wall Street Journal.

TEACHOUT: It was at New York City Ballet a number of years ago, not under the present regime, when the orchestra was in a terrible state of disrepair, and they performed a very difficult score by Igor Stravinsky to a ballet by George Balanchine. And they butchered it. And I was furious. And at the end I booed. It’s the only time I’ve ever done it in my life. I think I was the only person in the theater who was doing it, and I doubt if anybody knew why I was doing it to be perfectly honest with you. But I felt a lot better for having done it.

It should be said that Teachout was at the ballet as a civilian that night, not as a critic.

TEACHOUT: I’ve never heard a single boo on Broadway as long as I’ve been reviewing, which is going on nine years now.

DUBNER: How on earth can that be?

TEACHOUT: I often wonder myself. And the conclusion I’ve come to, other than some vague theory about how Americans are just basically nice people, which may or may not be true, is that tickets on Broadway cost an enormous amount. So that people feel I think obliged to vest themselves in the performance in a way that they might not if the ticket cost half as much. If you’re putting out $125 for your seat, you want your show to be good. And I think that there may be some built-in bias there that inclines you to enjoy what you see.

DUBNER: Right, there is a phenomena that psychologists and economists talk about, the endowment effect. When something is yours, and you attach value to it, you inflate the value of it because it is yours.

TEACHOUT: Exactly right, and when you’re endowing a performance with, assuming that you’re bringing a date, three hundred dollars or more a pop, not including the incidental costs of travel, of having dinner, of all the things that go in to having a night at the theater — you’re talking about a fairly substantial investment.

DUBNER: Yeah, and that makes sense, but let’s entertain an alternate scenario. Let’s pretend that there was a lot of booing on Broadway. Then we might say, well, it’s because the tickets are so expensive, and when you pay that much you expect that the product will be satisfactory to you and it’s not. And yet that doesn’t happen. So maybe it’s not about the money.

TEACHOUT: Well, I can see a case for arguing that demand characteristics of the situation are shaping the way people respond on Broadway, except that people boo in opera houses in New York, and I’ve heard it. I’ve heard people absolutely tearing their hair and screaming with dislike usually over productions. I’ve never heard an individual performer booed at the Met. What they boo is the production of a standard opera that is extremely eccentric in some way that is not to their liking.

DUBNER: So, you think at root we should have more booing?

TEACHOUT: I would be encouraged if I heard it once in a while. I would not want the kind of full-scale incivility that is common in Italian opera houses. I don’t want to see people throwing tomatoes. I actually suggested, as a kind of thought experiment, what I called the silent boo, which would be you would install in your lobby a pair of Plexiglas bins into which people dropped their programs as they left, one marked “cheers,” and the other marked “jeers.” So that they could register their reaction to what they had seen in an immediate and visible way without having to boo if they feel, as I think many Americans feel, that booing is a fundamentally rude and uncivil thing to do. But obviously, if they don’t like a show, they’d like to express it in some way, and that would be a visible way. And a fairly cheap one, too.

DUBNER: Yeah, now I see the merit of that idea, but on the other hand, there’s nothing remotely visceral about it. I mean, isn’t that kind of the point of the boo is it reflects the audience’s visceral reaction to and investment in the performer. And that’s a different kind of thing than checking a box on a kind of, you know, customer satisfaction survey right?

TEACHOUT: Well, now bear in mind that there’s a big difference between checking a box on a customer survey and storming into the lobby and flinging your program into the jeers bin in full view of a hundred other people. I think it’s conceivable. If somebody were to do it, I think that people would in fact see that as an outlet for expressing their feelings about the performance and also one that would not just be cathartic, but might well supply useful information to the producers of the show. That said, I agree with you about booing. I think there’s something really natural about booing. You know, sometimes when I see a really awful show, even though I didn’t spend any money to see it …

DUBNER: And you’re getting paid to see it, so the dynamic is exactly the opposite, and yet it’s still frustrating.

TEACHOUT: Well, I paid with time. I paid with part of my life that I can never get back. I take people to shows because they give us two press seats, and sometimes on the way out I’ll say, “Another two hours closer to the grave.”

Steve LEVITT: I’ve never been booed, but I think that’s a bad thing, because I think in order to get booed, people actually have to have high expectations about you.

That’s Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He’s an economist at the University of Chicago.

LEVITT: And I don’t think anyone has ever had high-enough expectations about me to bother to want to boo at me. Like if you think about baseball, it’s never the number-nine hitter, the shortstop who bats .220, who gets booed. I mean, everyone knows he’s terrible. It’s the guy like Reggie Jackson or David Ortiz, who’s, Barry Bonds — the guy who’s supposed to be good and then disappoints you who ends up getting booed.

I get what Levitt’s saying. If you’ve made the big time — if you’re a professional — boos come with the territory. If you aren’t getting booed — well, you probably haven’t gotten where you want to go. Nobody boos a bad clown at a kids’ birthday party, do they? They don’t boo amateurs … do they? We visited the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem for Amateur Night. Brace yourself.

HOST: Ladies and gentlemen: Are you ready for Amateur Night?

Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and the Jackson Five all played Amateur Night here. The place can be pretty unforgiving. Among the future stars who got booed: James Brown and Luther Vandross. On Amateur Night, the emcee encourages the audience members to vote with their throats.

HOST: Now, this is the only place where you get to show that you don’t appreciate what you saw. So if you don’t like them, what you gonna do?

HOST: Then we’ll bring out the Executioner, C.P. Lacey!

Tonight, C.P. Lacey is wearing red. Red suit. Red tie. Red hat. He’s worked here for nearly 25 years.

C.P. LACEY: I’ve been here for a minute.

He’s the executioner, the guy that performers do not want to see.

C.P. LACEY: It is my job to rid the stage of any unwanted acts. In other words,  well, O.K., you’re singing your song — ya da ya da ya da da da da da — booooo. The band starts playing a totally different song than the one you’re singing, then I come out tapping and I’m telling them to get off the stage, and they don’t even know what’s happening because so much is going on; they’re still singing their song. And then they kinda get the idea and they’re like, “I’m getting booed!”

Backstage, dancers are running through their acts. Singers are warming up. Here’s Ellis Gage.

Ellis GAGE: I’m 12-years-old. I’ll be singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

[INTERCOM: Places, places, places. Places, places, places.]

Ellis didn’t get booed — mostly because he was really, really good. But even if he weren’t, he would have been spared — at the Apollo, you’re not supposed to boo a kid. But this next guy, he wasn’t a kid …

HOST: Here’s a male vocalist from Brooklyn, New York. I need more energy for Mr. Josh M. Winter!


You can’t sing gospel

You can’t boo gospel.


Oh man, I have no sympathy for gospel.

Boo, Boo.

Give him a chance–


— give him like 30 more seconds.

All right, 15.

What are you doing?

He’s cheating. This is cheating. Singing gospel is cheating, nobody wants to boo it.

I did.


Thank you!

Let’s go!


Gospel is a cop-out. Gospel is a cop-out.

And I’m not scared to boo in the name of Jesus.

We don’t hold back! Boo! Boo! Boo! Boo!

All right, we’ve heard from the people who do the booing, but what do you do when you get the boo?

[TEASE] The fans loved it, and the media loved it.  It got the fans off my back and it got the media off my back.

*      *      *

All right, so let’s see — you shouldn’t boo kids … but … it’s O.K. to boo in the name of Jesus. Those are some of the rules of booing at the Apollo. Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, he’s done a lot of thinking about the do’s and don’ts of booing. He once wrote a newspaper column with the headline, “Rendell’s Rules for Booing.”

DUBNER: I wonder if we could walk through them quickly, maybe give me an example of each one?


DUBNER: You write that, “Good-natured booing is always allowed.” Explain.

RENDELL: Yeah, I say good-natured booing like booing a popular politician. I remember once I got reelected as mayor with 81 percent of the vote, and then the next night I went to a 76ers game, they made the mistake of introducing me and I got booed. But it was good-natured. I would say probably 90 percent of the people in the stands voted for me. But that was good-natured booing.

DUBNER: All right, so you write booing a politician is always acceptable, obviously …

RENDELL:  Oh, always acceptable, any politician who ventures out on the field …

DUBNER: But why, why is that? Is it because they’re trying to grab someone else’s glory? Why?

RENDELL: Yeah, any politician who ventures out on a field deserves to be booed, because politics and sports don’t mix. In fact, sports is in some ways the antithesis of politics because winning and losing is decided on the field not who you know, not how much money you raise, or things like that. And politicians should generally stay away. I wrote another column where I said that the two things that a politician fears the most are Agent Jones from the F.B.I. is here to see you, and secondly, we’d like you to throw out the first ball on opening day.

DUBNER: You’ve had that experience a few times, right? You’ve thrown out your share of first balls, and it doesn’t go well, does it?

RENDELL: It never goes well. I threw out the first ball at the opening of Harrisburg’s new stadium. And I gave, the state through me, gave half of the money and I still got booed. And the stadium was beautiful.

DUBNER: So now, how can you possibly account for the fact that you got booed, it was in Harrisburg right, where $9 million of state money came their way, helped by you, what’s the excuse, or what’s the reason that the fans deserve, in your mind, to even boo you there?

RENDELL: Because generally, politicians don’t belong on a sports field. And I only make an exception when the team absolutely begs me. I go to a lot of games. I’m probably the mayor and governor who’s been the biggest sports fan maybe in the history of the commonwealth. I go to a lot of games, but I try, I sit in the stands, but I will not be introduced. I tell the teams, and I don’t want to be on camera either.

DUBNER: Now, that doesn’t seem fair, does it? Rendell gets booed at a stadium that he helped fund. But if you’re a politician, you’ve got to learn to live with the boo … you’ve got to know what to do with the boo …

Steve CLAYMAN: I’m Steve Clayman, and I’m a professor of sociology at U.C.L.A.

DUBNER: Clayman once wrote a paper about booing and applause in political speeches. He analyzed more than forty hours of material, including some presidential debates.

[GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Is Iran talking to Iraq about peace? You judge on the record. Are the Soviets coming out of Afghanistan? How does it look in a program he called phony or some one of these marvelous Boston adjectives up there and-about Angola (boos) Now, we have a chance-several Bostonians don’t like it, but the rest of the country will understand.]

DUBNER: That was George Bush the elder in a Michael Dukakis debate in 1988. We don’t actually hear Dukakis there. Talk to me about this one now.

CLAYMAN: I thought it was an excellent example of the way a speaker can respond to a booing response when it happens. Bush had a comeback for the booing that turned out to be quite effective. So he’s talking about foreign policy, and in the course of his remarks, in an embedded, indirect way, he makes a derisive remark about Bostonians. And that gets people in the audience to begin to boo. He says, “Several Bostonians don’t like it, but the rest of the country will understand.” This is a way, a method if you will, for dealing with booing when it occurs. And the method he’s using is to marginalize the boo-ers, that is to characterize the people in the room who are doing the booing as not representing the majority, but rather a narrow, self-interested slice. So, he managed to turn an episode of booing into a supportive episode of applause.

DUBNER: Right, he turns the boos back on — it was a boo-merang, I guess is what it was, right?

CLAYMAN: That’s right. [LAUGHTER]

In our attempt to understand the boo, we’ve got one more story to tell you. If you ask me, this one is the story of the ultimate boo-merang.

Johnnie LEMASTER: My name is Johnnie LeMaster. I am a sporting goods store owner at this time. I own my own business and coach a little bit of baseball. And that’s basically what I do. 

Johnnie LeMaster is being a little bit humble. He left out the part about playing Major League Baseball for twelve seasons, mostly for the San Francisco Giants. He was hardly the best ballplayer who ever lived — in fact, he was a shortstop with a career batting average of around .220, the very kind of player Steve Levitt talked about who usually isn’t targeted for booing.

LEMASTER: I’m just an ordinary person, but I was living an extraordinary life. And that’s all because of baseball. 

DUBNER: During this long career of yours with the Giants, there comes a time, I believe in 1979, when the Giants fans there in San Francisco are in, I guess, a sour mood, the team is not doing as much winning as they’d like, and they got particularly unhappy with you. And that led to a situation. Can you walk me through that?

LEMASTER: Sure. As you say, the team wasn’t playing real well — I wasn’t playing real well. And that booing started. I guess I became the whipping post, per se, if you want to call it that. And it escalated and started getting worse each game, even when I just popped my head out of the dugout it would be “Boo” or something of that nature. 

DUBNER: And what’s it feel like to be the athlete, to be booed like that? I assume that you’re trying hard, right? And I think that everybody knows that there’s a difference between booing for when someone doesn’t put out effort and when they make a mistake. There’s big difference in those two things.

LEMASTER: Yeah, they could have never booed me for lack of effort or lack of hustle. But an athlete wants to please his home crowd more than anything in the world. And it’s a crushing — it’s a thing that hurts so bad when your own fans boo you. But I want my fans to be pleased with what I’m doing, because they’re the ones that pay my salary, they’re the ones that come in and cheer us on, they’re the ones that care about us the most, because we had some die-hard Giant fans, and I’m still a Giant fan at heart, and I always will be.

DUBNER: Now, why was it you? Why were you the guy that they started to boo?

LEMASTER: People are, I don’t know how to say, fickle. Once something like that gets started it just kind of snowballs. And at that month I guess, I made a few errors at the wrong time and said a few things in the newspapers that I probably shouldn’t have said at the time being a young idiot kid.

DUBNER: What kind of things had you said in the newspaper, Johnnie?

LEMASTER: Well, I’d rather probably just keep that to myself.

DUBNER: Was it about baseball, or was it kind of off topic?

LEMASTER: It was off topic, more about some political things that were going on in San Francisco.

DUBNER: Oh, that never works well, does it?

LEMASTER: No, it’s a … I’m a very conservative person, and that’s more of the most liberal places that there is in the world. And some of the things … I didn’t say them to hurt anybody, but I said them to try to make people think.

DUBNER: This is San Francisco, this wasn’t about homosexuality maybe, was it?


DUBNER: O.K., so you’re in San Francisco and you say something that could be interpreted as a conservative view on homosexuality, that’s not going to go over very well.

LEMASTER: Believe me, it didn’t.

The boos escalated. This went on for weeks. LeMaster was pretty unhappy about it. Finally, one night, lying in bed with his wife, she had an idea for how he should handle the boos.

LEMASTER: The next day, I went in an talked to our equipment manager and I said make me a jersey up with my number on it, and put instead of my name, LeMaster, I said put Boo on the back of it. And it hung in my locker for a couple of weeks, and then I finally got enough nerve to put it on and wear it in a game. But I only got to wear it for the top half of the first inning. After the game, there was a letter laying on my chair in front of my locker. My general manager had fined my $500 for being out of uniform. But here’s the whole thing about it; the fans loved it, and the media loved it. It got the fans off my back and it got the media off my back.

DUBNER: When you decided to wear the jersey, or I guess when you decided to make the jersey, what were you trying to say? Were you just trying to make fun of yourself, were you trying to acknowledge that you heard the boos, were you trying to boo the fans back? What was the message, you think?

LEMASTER: I was trying to give the fans a way instead of booing Johnnie LeMaster that whenever they were going to say, they were going to boo, they were actually cheering me because that was now my new name. But I had a good time with it, too, don’t get me wrong. And you know, here we are still talking about it thirty years later. But here’s, I guess, what brings it all back to reality, the last year I played I was with the Oakland A’s. And I’m sure you’ve heard of Reggie Jackson.

DUBNER: Sure have.

LEMASTER: Reggie was on that team. It was the last year he played, also. But we were up in Seattle, and I went down early for breakfast one morning. And I was there by myself. And about the time I got ready to order, Reggie walked in. He says, “Anybody sitting with you?” I said, “No Reggie, come on sit down, man. We’ll eat breakfast together.” And he came over and sat down. We were chit chatting a little bit. And then he looked over at me and he said, “I hear you get booed every once in a while.” I said, “Reggie, I did”. And he looked at me across that table, just eyeball-to-eyeball, and he said, “Let me tell you something.” He said, “People don’t boo nobodies.” Now, why he told me that, I don’t know. But he made me feel like a million bucks.

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