The U.S. tax code is almost universally seen as onerous and overly complicated. There is always talk in Washington about serious reform — Michigan Reps. Dave Camp (R.) and Sander Levin (D.) are currently working on it — but, Washington being Washington, we probably shouldn’t hold our breath.
So in this podcast we decided to take a look at the tax code we’re stuck with for now and see if there are some improvements, however marginal, that are worth thinking about. We start by discussing the “tax gap,” the huge portion of taxes that simply go uncollected for a variety of reasons. We once wrote about a clever man who helped close the gap a bit. In this episode, former White House economist AustanGoolsbee tells us why the government doesn’t try too hard to collect tax on all the cash that sloshes around the economy.
You’ll also hear from Dan Ariely, who has an idea for turning the act of paying taxes into a somewhat more satisfying civic duty.
Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “How Money Is March Madness?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
The gist: the annual NCAA basketball tournament grabs a lot of eyeballs, but turning them into dollars hasn’t always been easy — even when the “talent” is playing for free.
New York City’s subways and buses carry roughly seven million passengers a day, which goes a long way toward explaining why New Yorkers have one of the smallest carbonfootprints in the U.S. Doesn’t that mean that mass transit is inevitably good for the environment?
Yes, no, and sometimes.
Our latest Freakonomics Radio onMarketplacepodcast is called “Mass Transit Hysteria.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player in the post, or read the transcript below.)
Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “The Dilbert Index?” (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.) It’s about workplace morale and the measurement thereof.
This segment was largely crowd-sourced from Freakonomics blog readers — so: thanks! It began with a blog post in which a reader named Tim Wadlow asserted that the direction you park in your company lot may say something about company morale. We then opened up the blog to further observations on company morale. One of the most interesting: the “Dilbert Index,” as described by a reader named Damon Beaven:
BEAVEN: I look for the number of Dilbert comics and that seems to be inversely proportional to the level of morale. A lot of Dilbert comics seems to be like a passive aggressive way of an employee complaining.
We also take a step back and ask the basic questions like: How much does company morale matter to a company’s bottom line? What’s the best way to measure morale? And, in the realm of unintended consequences, what happens when a company tries to cut down on sick days?
We seem to be in the midst of a national obsession with obesity. Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is about some of the surprising contributors, and possible economic solutions, to the problem. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)
One suspected contributor to obesity, for instance, is the drastic decline in smoking in recent years. It’s great news that fewer people smoke but, according to Vanderbilt economist Kip Viscusi, people who quit smoking tend to gain weight.
What’s going on here? Has the rate of myopia exploded, even among premier athletes?
We talk to Susan Vitale, a research epidemiologist with the NIH’s National Eye Institute, who worked on a large study on myopia in the U.S. There has indeed been a huge spike in recent decades, and it’s especially pronounced among blacks.
Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast covers the upcoming Super Bowl between the New York Giants and New England Patriots. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)
We figured that of the 100 million-plus people who “watch” the game each year, a lot of them aren’t what you’d call rabid football fans. Does that describe you? If so, this episode is a handy cheat sheet that’ll let you converse knowingly with your football-crazed friends, and maybe even one-up them.
Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “The Patent Gap.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “Is Good Corporate Citizenship Also Good for the Bottom Line?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
“We show that there is significant variation in future accounting and stock market performance across the two groups of firms. We track corporate performance for 18 years and find that sustainable firms outperform traditional firms in terms of both stock market and accounting performance.”
Are you bummed out that you might have to postpone retirement for financial reasons?
Well, there may be a silver lining: it looks like retirement may be bad for your health. That’s the topic of our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, “Retirement Kills.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
The Great Recession has put a lot of retirement plans on hold, often at the behest of governments who can’t afford to pay pensions. Germany, the U.K., and France have all upped their retirement ages. And the U.S. is seeing a lot more older workers as well. Lisa Boily of the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that people 55 and older are expected to represent 25 percent of the labor force by 2020.
Part of this is simple demographics — the graying of the baby boom — but Americans are also working longer.
Our latest Freakonomics Radio onMarketplace podcast is called “A Cheap Employee Is … a Cheap Employee.”
(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
It’s about the question of whether low-paid employees are indeed a good deal for a retailer’s bottom line as the conventional wisdom states.
The piece begins with a couple of stories from blog readers, Eric M. Jones and Jamie Crouthamel, which were solicited earlier here. (One of the true pleasures of operating this blog is having a channel by which to turn readers into radio guests — thanks!)
Mitt Romneywon big in New Hampshire, but his opponents are vowing to push on in South Carolina. Which means stepping up their pleas for cash. In an e-mail to supporters, Rick Santorum wrote:
We must show real progress tonight and redouble our efforts … That’s why my campaign launched the “Game On” Moneybomb, and why we need your help right now. As you already know, we are facing serious and well-funded opposition for the nomination.
That’s the kind of language that confirms one of the biggest truisms in politics: money buys elections.
Our latest Freakonomics Radio onMarketplace podcast is called “What’s Wrong With Cash for Grades?”
(You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
In it, Steve Levitt talks to Kai Ryssdal about whether it’s effective to pay kids to do well in school. Levitt, along with John List, Susanne Neckermann, and Sally Sadoff, recently wrote up a working paper (PDF here) based on their field experiments in Chicago schools. Levitt blogged about the paper earlier; here’s the Atlantic‘s take.
Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “It’s Not the President, Stupid.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.) The gist: it’s time to admit that the U.S. economy doesn’t have a commander-in-chief.
In this Marketplace segment, you’ll hear from Austan Goolsbee, the University of Chicago economist who has served President Obama as both campaign adviser and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers:
GOOLSBEE:I think the world vests too much power, certainly in the president, probably in Washington in general for its influence on the economy, because most all of the economy has nothing to do with the government.
Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “The Hidden Cost of False Alarms.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
The central facts: between 94 and 99 percent of burglar-alarm calls turn out to be false alarms, and false alarms make up between 10 and 20 percent of all calls to police.
There are at least three things to consider upon learning these facts:
1. If a particular medical screening had such a high false-positive rate, it would likely be considered worse than worthless; but:
2. With more than 2 million annual burglaries in the U.S., perhaps it’s worth putting up with so many false positives in service of the greater deterrent; as long as:
3. The cost of all those false positives are borne by the right people.
Can you already figure out whether No. 3 is in fact the case?
Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “A Rose By Any Other Distance.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
With Mother’s Day coming up, we thought it’d be interesting to look at the cut-flower industry. Americans spend about $12 billion a year on them. Mario Valle, a wholesaler at the L.A. Flower District, tells us that Mother’s Day is easily his biggest day of the year: “It’s 30 percent of my year. Everyone has a mother!”
In our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, Stephen Dubner looks at why the first decision you make in 2012 can be riskier than you think. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)
The risks of driving drunk are well-established; it’s an incredibly dangerous thing to do, and produces massive collateral damage as well. So if you have a bit too much to drink over the holiday and think you’ll do the smart thing and walk home instead — well, that’s not so smart after all. Steve Levitt has compared the risk of drunk walking with drunk driving and found that the former can potentially pose a greater risk:
In our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, we’re talking turkey, literally. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript.) Americans are expected to eat more than 40 million of the big birds this month for Thanksgiving, so we asked the same question everyone’s thinking: where do they all come from? The answer might surprise you – it certainly seemed to surprise Kai Ryssdal.
Specifically, the question is this: of all the commercially raised turkeys in the U.S., what percentage are the product of artificial insemination?
The answer, oddly enough, is 100 percent. Why? Well, it’s a supply-and-demand story. Because Americans particularly love to eat turkey breast meat (a great delivery platform for gravy!), turkeys have been selectively bred over the years to have bigger and bigger breasts. So big, in fact, that when it comes time for a male turkey to naturally reproduce with a female, his massive breast prevents him from getting close enough to complete the act.
Ever notice anything strange around town when elections are coming up?
Our latest podcast, “Wildfires, Cops, and Keggers,” looks into the odd by-products of electoral politics — that is, not just which politicians get elected, but what kind of below-the-radar shenanigans happen before (and sometimes after) an election, usually inspired by how an incumbent’s incentives are lined up. Maybe property taxes dropped in the run-up to an election, only to spike once an incumbent had won another term. Maybe more cops and firemen were hired during campaign season.
Given that many of these election-cycle fluctuations occur in less-scrutizined local elections, we want to hear from you any interesting examples you’ve witnessed. Tell us your election stories in the comments below!
There’s a natural ratio of men to women for our species, and it is not equal. For every 100 girls, 105 boys are born. But in some places, like India and China, the ratio is skewed. One Chinese city recorded an astounding 163 boys born per 100 girls. So, why is this happening?
The expanding use of this technology has allowed expecting parents to abort unwanted girls and keep the boys. The ability to sex-select has caused the disappearance of an estimated 160 million girls in Asia alone.
In this Marketplacesegment, Stephen J. Dubner reports on the unintended consequences that come with new technology.
We’ve been having some fun recently at the expense of people who like to predict things. In our hour-long Freakonomics Radio episode “The Folly of Prediction” — which will be available as a podcast in the fall — we showed that humans are lousy at predicting just about anything: the weather, the stock market, elections. In fact, even most experts are only nominally better than a coin flip at determining a future outcome. And yet there remains a huge demand for professional predictors and forecasters.
Earlier this week, Stephen Dubner and Kai Ryssdal chatted about this on the Freakonomics Radio segment on Marketplace. The question remains: “should bad predictions be punished?”
As mentioned in the segment, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s August crop yield report came out today. The result? Not bad actually. The corn yield forecast was revised downward by just 1.3% from its estimate last month. That’s a considerable improvement over last year’s big miss, when the August corn yield report had to be revised downward by almost 7%.
What do Wall Street forecasters and Romanian witches have in common? They usually get away, scot-free, with making bad predictions. Our world is awash in poor prediction — but for some reason, we can’t stop, even though accuracy rates often barely beat a coin toss.
But then there’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s crop forecasting. Predictions covering a big crop like corn (U.S. farmers have planted the second largest crop since WWII this year) usually fall within five percent of the actual yield. So how do they do it? Every year, the U.S.D.A. sends thousands of enumerators into cornfields across the country where they inspect the plants, the conditions, and even “animal loss.”
This week on Marketplace, Stephen J. Dubner and Kai Ryssdal talk about the supply and demand of predictions. You’ll hear from Joseph Prusacki, the head of U.S.D.A’s Statistics Division, who’s gearing up for his first major crop report of 2011 (the street is already “sweating” it); Phil Friedrichs, who collects cornfield data for the USDA; and our trusted economist and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt.
Another thing to add to the list of things to be paranoid about: your paycheck might kill you. Notre Dame economist William Evans, along with Timothy Moore from the University of Maryland, analyzed more than 75 million deaths in the U.S., and found something interesting.
On the first day of each month, the death rate goes up.
As an economist, Steven Levitt says he has an underdeveloped moral compass. In the past, the University of Chicago professor and Freakonomics co-author has tricked colleagues into drinking cheap wine and opined that drug dealers in Sao Paulo would do a better job keeping communities safe.
But his moral compass went spinning when the U.S. recently cracked down on the top three online poker companies, resulting in 11 indictments. The federal government accused PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker of running their operations illegally, including paying banks to secretly process transactions.
“I think it makes no sense at all,” Levitt says. “Most things that are made illegal, everyone agrees on: homicide, theft–there’s a general agreement. And then there are these other activities that fall into a gray area. I think poker is so obviously on one side of the gray area relative to legality that it just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Levitt says he doesn’t usually get riled up over such issues, but then he realized why he got so angry: his daughter.
In our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, we look at the economics of charity — specifically, what works (and what doesn’t) when trying to incentivize people to give. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript.)
In Australia, Dick Smith’s electronics empire has afforded him enough success to be able to donate about 20 percent of his annual income to charity. But, he says, this kind of generosity is no longer the norm:
A charter school teacher warned her third graders that a standardized test question was “tricky,” and they all changed their answers. A high school coach in Brooklyn called a student into the hallway and slipped her a completed answer sheet in a newspaper. In the Bronx, a principal convened Finish Your Lab Days, where biology students ended up copying answers for work they never did.
This comes as little surprise to Steve Levitt, who several years ago recognized what most legislators and school administrators were unable (or unwilling?) to foresee: that the introduction of high-stakes testing would create incentives that might encourage some teachers (especially bad ones) to cheat on behalf of their students. So he developed an algorithm to catch cheaters, which was so successful that then-Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan brought Levitt in to help identify and fire cheating Chicago teachers.
In our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, Stephen Dubner and Kai Ryssdal talk about the unexpected reasons why American food gotsobad. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript.)
Our latest Freakonomics Radio segment on Marketplace concerns a topic we’ve been writing about for a long time: violent crime — and especially why it rises and falls. In this segment, Levitt and I discuss the fact that overall crime and violence are likely at a historic low these days, and not by a little bit either. The conversation builds off the fascinating new book by Steven Pinker called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
Pinker has just completed a very good Q&A on our blog, and you’ll hear him in the Marketplace segment as well. Even though many people are convinced that the world today is more violent than ever (can you say “media effect”?), Pinker lays out the facts of the decline and fall of violence in a way that is hard to dispute: