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When to Rob a Bank…

When To Rob A Bank

A new book from the guys who brought you Freakonomics (which is ten years old…ten years): When to Rob a Bank: …And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants.

Over the past decade, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have published more than 8,000 blog posts on Many of them, they freely admit, were rubbish. But now they’ve gone through and picked the best of the best. You’ll discover what people lie about, and why; the best way to cut gun deaths; why it might be time for a sex tax; and, yes, when to rob a bank. (Short answer: never; the ROI is terrible.) You’ll also learn a great deal about Levitt and Dubner’s own quirks and passions, from gambling and golf to backgammon and the abolition of the penny.

FWIW, here are the posts about the sex tax and when to rob a bank. (via mr)

Think Like a Freak

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the co-authors of the immensely popular Freakonomics, are back with their third book in the series: Think Like a Freak. In it, rather than discussing what they think, they talk about how they think.

Levitt and Dubner offer a blueprint for an entirely new way to solve problems, whether your interest lies in minor lifehacks or major global reforms. As always, no topic is off-limits. They range from business to philanthropy to sports to politics, all with the goal of retraining your brain. Along the way, you’ll learn the secrets of a Japanese hot-dog-eating champion, the reason an Australian doctor swallowed a batch of dangerous bacteria, and why Nigerian e-mail scammers make a point of saying they’re from Nigeria.

The book is out on May 12, but of course you can preorder, etc.

Update: Excerpt in the WSJ.

SuperFreakonomics not so super

In a New Yorker book review this week, Elizabeth Kolbert tears Levitt and Dubner a new one over the geoengineering chapter of SuperFreakonomics, calling the pair’s thinking on the issue “horseshit”.

Given their emphasis on cold, hard numbers, it’s noteworthy that Levitt and Dubner ignore what are, by now, whole libraries’ worth of data on global warming. Indeed, just about everything they have to say on the topic is, factually speaking, wrong. Among the many matters they misrepresent are: the significance of carbon emissions as a climate-forcing agent, the mechanics of climate modelling, the temperature record of the past decade, and the climate history of the past several hundred thousand years.

Giving 110%, in defense of sports interview cliches

Freakonomists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner probably got the ball rolling back in 2006 with their article about how people get really good at something. Malcolm Gladwell threw his hat into the ring with Outliers and the 10,000-Hour Rule. More recently, David Brooks stepped up to the plate and delivered a review of two recent books on how genius is made, not born: Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated. I even stuck my oar in briefly; the deliberate practice concept fascinates me, tangentially related as it is to relaxed concentration. From Brooks’ article:

The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.

Athletes have long been ridiculed for the cliches they use when talking about how they won, particularly during post-game interviews. You know them by heart:

We just have to keep working hard.
It just comes down to staying focused.
We gave it 110% tonight.
We worked hard in practice all week.
We never gave up.

If the writers above (and the researchers their writings are based on) are correct, maybe the jocks have it right: it all comes down to preparation, working harder, and wanting it more than the other guy. Simple…except for that pesky 10,000 hours thing.

Stephen Dubner wrote a short article on

Stephen Dubner wrote a short article on one of my favorite topics of the recent past: deliberate practice.

This means that, your level of natural talent notwithstanding, excellence is accomplished mainly through the tenets of deliberate practice, which are roughly:

1. Focus on technique as opposed to outcome.
2. Set specific goals.
3. Get good, prompt feedback, and use it.

(via clusterflock)

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt (aka the

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt (aka the Freakonomics guys) on the first-world phenomenon of doing menial labor as a hobby. Examples: knitting, cooking, gardening, lawn care. More on the Freakonomics site.

Unobserved people paid almost three times as

Unobserved people paid almost three times as much to the “honesty box” when watched by a photocopied face than in the absence of the face. See also What the Bagel Man Saw by Freakonomists Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt. I wonder if the smiley face on milk cartons deters people from drinking straight from the carton?

Update: Spiegel Online has a story with a graph depicting the results of different sets of eyes…sexy eyes did the worst while serious eyes looking straight ahead performed the best. (thx, roland)

Lee Siegel has a Malcolm Gladwell problem

Lee Siegel has a Malcolm Gladwell problem and, he argues, so do the rest of us. From a commenter (who gets his Dubner mixed up with his Levitt): “Gladwell is destroying literature as we know it”. (via 3qd)

The NY Times article by Steven Levitt

The NY Times article by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner about talent is still on the most emailed list a week after it went up on the site…and it’s the second-most emailed story over the last month. Also of note is how politically oriented the most blogged list is compared to the most emailed list.

The economics of sex…does fear of

The economics of sex…does fear of AIDS make male less likely to self-identify as homosexual?

Freakonomists Dubner and Levitt propose a solution

Freakonomists Dubner and Levitt propose a solution for people who don’t clean up after their dogs in NYC: a mandatory doggie DNA database against which sidewalk dookies are compared and fines mailed out for offenders.

Keith Chen is doing economic research with

Keith Chen is doing economic research with monkeys; teaching them how money works. “When taught to use money, a group of capuchin monkeys responded quite rationally to simple incentives; responded irrationally to risky gambles; failed to save; stole when they could; used money for food and, on occasion, sex.”


Two years ago, Stephen Dubner wrote an article for the NY Times Magazine on Steven Levitt, an economist with a knack for tackling odd sorts of problems. Last year, Dubner and Levitt collaborated on an article called What the Bagel Man Saw about the economic lessons gleaned from a man who’s been successfully selling bagels on the honor system in offices for more than 20 years. Now Levitt and Dubner are out with a new book called Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Nearly Everything, an overview of Levitt’s work and collaborations with other economists.

Dr. Levitt was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about the book:

jkottke: In Freakonomics, you state that you’re interested in applying economic tools to “more interesting” subjects than what one may have learned about in my high school economics class. What’s your definition of economics? Is it a tool set or a science or what?

Steven Levitt: I think of economics as a worldview, not a set of topics. This worldview has a few different pieces. First, incentives are paramount. If you understand someone’s incentives, you can do a pretty good job of predicting their behavior. Second, the appropriate data, analyzed the right way are key to understanding a problem. Finally, political correctness is irrelevant. Whatever the answer happens to be, whether you think it will be popular or not, that is the answer you put forth.

jkottke: Your talent for ignoring seemingly applicable but ultimately irrelevant information (not that different from a professional-grade batter taking cues from certain aspects of a pitcher’s mechanics and ignoring the extraneous ones in order to hit well), where does that come from? Good genes or was it all the books in your childhood home?

Levitt: If nothing else, I had an unusual home environment. My father is a medical researcher whose claim to fame is that he is the world’s expert on intestinal gas (he’s known as the King of Farts). My mother is a psychic who channels books. From an early age, my life was different from that of other kids. For instance, when I was in junior high, my father would wake me up at night to drill me with questions in hopes that I would be the star of the local high school quiz show.

jkottke: In looking at the world through data, you’ve investigated cheating schoolteachers, falling crime rates due to abortion, and the parallels between McDonald’s corporate structure and the inner workings of a crack-dealing gang. What’s the oddest or most surprising thing you’ve uncovered with this approach? Maybe something you still can’t quite believe or explain?

Levitt: It’s not the oddest result I’ve ever come up with, but there is one finding I have always puzzled over: when cities hire lots of Black cops, the arrest rates of Whites go up, but no more Blacks get arrested. When cities hire White cops, the opposite happens (more Black arrests, no more White arrests). It was an amazingly stark result, but I’m not quite sure what the right story is.

jkottke: In the chapter on the effect of abortion on crime rates, you and Stephen take care emphasizing what the data says and the strong views that people in the US hold on the issue of abortion. Still, if someone wants to twist your observations into something like “abortion is good because it lowers crime”, it’s not that difficult. Have your observations in this area caused any problems for you? Any extreme reactions?

Levitt: I have gotten a whole lot of hate mail on the abortion issue (as much from the left as from the right, amazingly). What I try to tell anyone who will listen — few people will listen when the subject is abortion — is that our findings on abortion and crime have almost nothing to say about public policy on abortion. If abortion is murder as pro-life advocates say, then a few thousand less homicides is nothing compared to abortion itself. If a woman’s right to choose is sacrosanct, then utilitarian arguments are inconsequential. Mainly, I think the results on abortion imply that we should do the best we can to try to make sure kids who are born are wanted and loved. And it turns out that is something just about everyone can agree on.

jkottke: In the book, you say “a slight tweak [in incentives] can produce drastic and unforseen results”. If you were the omnipotent leader of the US for a short time, what little tweak might you make to our political, cultural, or economic frameworks to make America better (if you can forgive the subjectivity of that word)?

Levitt: I would start by increasing the IRS budget ten-fold and doing a lot more tax audits. If everyone paid their taxes, tax rates could be much lower and otherwise honest people wouldn’t be tempted to cheat. For some reason, everyone hates the idea. But we can’t all be cheating more than average on our taxes. I think it would be for the better. And after I got done with that, I’d legalize sports betting, and I would also do away with most of the nonsense and hassle that currently goes into airport security.

jkottke: In the war between the film and music industries and their customers, there’s an argument over how much the explosive increase in Internet piracy affects sales of CDs, movie tickets, and DVDs. Using the same data, the music/movie industry argues that sales are down because of piracy (or at least diminished from what they “should” be in a piracy-free marketplace) while the other side argues that sales are up and that piracy may actually have a beneficial effect. The question of “how does piracy affect record/movie sales?” seems well suited to your particular application of economic tools. Have you looked at this question? And if not, do you have sense of which special view of the data might reveal an answer?

Levitt: I have not myself studied the issue. I have a former student who has studied this issue. Alejandro Zentner. He argues that music sales are way down as a consequence of downloading. He uses the availability/price of high-speed internet across areas and relates that to patterns of self-reported music buying.

But on the other hand, I have a good friend Koleman Strumpf who has also written on this and comes to the opposite conclusion using a whole bunch of clever arguments.

This is a great issue - an important one and a tough one. Having studied both of these papers, I don’t know which one to believe.


Thanks, Steven. For more information on Freakonomics, check out the book’s web site — which includes a weblog written, in part, by the authors — or buy the book on Amazon. Check out also this email conversation between Levitt and Steve Sailer on the connection between legalized abortion and reduced crime in the 1990s, a short profile in Wired, and this profile in Esquire (free subscription required).

Update: Here’s a Freakonomics excerpt from Slate on how distinctively black or white names affect a child’s course in life.