Most economists talk about the graver things in life. Fiscal deficits, interest rates, GDP growth rate and, once in a while, about why they think that the financial world is coming to an end. But that is not the case with Steven E Landsburg, a professor of economics at the University of Rochester in the US, where students recently elected him Professor of the Year. Nearly 20 years back, he wrote The Armchair Economist, a book which brought an easy understanding of the dismal science to the masses. The book has been a bestseller since then, motivating him to write a new and revised edition. Landsburg is also the author of Fair Play, More Sex is Safer Sex and The Big Questions. He considers himself as the most important figure in the world of modern poetry, in consequence of his status as the only living being who reads poetry but does not write it. In this freewheeling interview to Vivek Kaul, he talks about why safe belts are unsafe and more sex is safer. He also speaks on why he has no clue about why people vote and popcorn is expensive at cinemas. Excerpts:
You write that ‘most of economics can be summarised in four words: people respond to incentives. The rest is commentary’. Why do you say that?
I say that because it’s true, and because it’s important. When the price of lettuce falls, people buy more lettuce. When the price of haircuts falls, people get more haircuts. When the penalty for murder becomes more certain, people commit fewer murders. Due to some combination of arthritis (which makes it difficult for me to turn my head to the right) and irresponsibility, I had a years-long habit of backing the right rear corner of my car into lamp posts, trees and other stationary obstructions. Often enough so the body shop owner joked about giving me a quantity discount. I paid $180 to get my bumper repaired, and I came to think of this as an unavoidable expense. Then in 2002 I got a new car with a fibreglass bumper, backed it into a tree, and discovered that this repair was going to cost me over $500. I have not backed into anything since. Even economists respond to incentives.
Do seat belts bring down the number of traffic- related deaths?
This is a good illustration of why it’s important to think about incentives. A seat belt makes it easier to survive an accident, and so reduces the incentive to avoid accidents in the first place. But research shows that drivers with seat belts drive less carefully -- to such a large extent that they’re just about as likely to die as drivers without seat belts. Also, pedestrian deaths seem to have increased. If you find it hard to believe that people drive less carefully when their cars are safer, consider the proposition that people drive more carefully when their cars are more dangerous. This is, of course, just another way of saying the same thing, but somehow people find it easier to believe. If I took the seat belts out of your car, wouldn’t you be more cautious when driving? What if I took the doors off? So if we really wanted to reduce the number of driver deaths, the best policy might be to require every new car to come equipped with a spear, mounted on the steering wheel and pointed directly at the driver’s heart. I predict we’d see a lot less tailgating.
Why is popcorn so expensive at cinemas?
Not for any of the reasons that quickly pop into most people’s minds. It’s not enough, for example, to observe that the theatre owner is exercising his monopoly power. If that were the whole story, he’d be charging monopoly prices not just for popcorn but for everything else in the theatre — the water fountains, the restrooms, and the right to sit down once you’ve entered the theatre, for example. The reason he doesn’t charge monopoly prices for those things is that his theatre would become less desirable, and to maintain his clientele he’d have to slash prices at the box-office. The same would be true of popcorn, if everyone bought the same amount of popcorn. What’s gained at the popcorn stand is lost at the box-office. In fact, it would be even worse than that: By jacking up the price of popcorn, he makes the entire theatre experience less desirable, so the total amount he can extract from his customers is lowered, not raised. So the high price of popcorn can’t be explained as a way to exploit customers generally; it must be a way to exploit popcorn-lovers in particular. And this makes sense only if the theatre owner believes that popcorn-lovers are more likely to tolerate high prices than popcorn-haters are. Why should that be the case? I’m honestly not sure.
Why is more sex safer sex?
In economics, we’re always thinking about the incentives faced by decision-makers. A decision-maker who does not face all the consequences of his actions often makes bad decisions from a social point of view. For example, the factory owner who decides to pollute the air usually does not feel all the consequences to other people’s health, and therefore over-pollutes. Likewise, people who are very likely to be infected with terrible diseases, when they take new sexual partners, are not accounting for all the consequences of their decisions, which means that from a social point of view, they have too many partners. But the flip side of that is that people who are very likely to be uninfected, because of their cautious past behaviour, when they take new sexual partners, make sex (on average) ‘safer’ for the rest of us. If the likely-to-be-infected are like polluters, then the likely-to-be-uninfected are like anti-polluters: People who go out and pick up trash in the parks.
Why do people vote even when they know that their one vote is unlikely to influence the outcome? Do they do it because they think that in a democracy it’s a good thing to do?
I haven’t the foggiest idea why people vote. But to say that it’s “a good thing to do” is hardly an explanation. There are lots of good things to do. Instead of spending 15 minutes at the voting booth, you could spend 15 minutes picking up trash in the street. If all you’re looking for is ‘a good thing to do’, it’s still not clear why you’d choose to vote.
Why are failed corporate chieftains often retired by their boards with very high pensions and a lot of other facilities?
Partly so the chieftains won’t be afraid to take risks. We want our corporate executives to take reasonable risks in order to boost profits. Sometimes reasonable risks lead to failures. If every failure meant personal ruin, executives would be far too cautious. When a corporate risk turns out badly, it’s often hard for the stockholders to know whether the executive was foolish or just unlucky. In case he’s proven foolish, they want to fire him. In case he was just unlucky, they want to treat him well, so that future executives will be willing to risk bad luck.
What is common between college education and long useless peacock tails?
They’re both used to show off. And for that reason, they can both be wasteful. Growing a longer tail than your neighbour’s, just to outshine him, is, from a social point of view, a waste of effort — you gain status but your neighbours lose status, so on average nobody comes out ahead. Likewise, getting more years of schooling than your neighbours, in so far as you’re doing it just to advertise your willingness to endure the ordeal, can be socially wasteful. Of course, some students actually learn something useful while they’re in school, so the analogy with the peacock’s tail is incomplete.
Do death penalties deter crime or are there better ways out?
The bulk of the evidence is that passing a death penalty law has very little effect on crime, but that actually executing people has a very substantial effect. In the United States, quite a few studies have found that each execution prevents several murders — typically the studies find that “several” means approximately eight. Of course, that doesn’t prove that the death penalty is a wise policy — you might worry, for example, that a government empowered to exact the death penalty will not always use that penalty wisely or even honestly.
An increasing amount of government debt puts more money into people’s pockets. What is the logic behind saying that?
There are two ways the government can increase its debt. One is by spending more; the other is by taxing less. Obviously, when they tax less, they put more money into people’s pockets. In that case, the net effect on individual finances is mixed: On the one hand, you, as an individual taxpayer, will eventually be taxed to pay off not just the government’s debt, but also the interest on that debt. On the other hand, you, as an individual taxpayer, not only have more money in your pocket, but also the opportunity to earn interest on that money. Those effects roughly balance out. So if government debt is causing you harm, it must be for reasons more subtle than the ones we usually hear about.
Why do celebrity endorsements increase the sales of the product even when we know that the celebrity has been paid to recommend the product and isn’t really an expert on that product?
The company that hires a celebrity endorser is sinking a lot of money into advertising --- money that will take it years to earn back. You can be pretty sure this is a company that cares about its reputation, and so is likely to provide a quality product.
You write that advocates of mandatory helmet laws for motorcycles argue that a rider without a helmet raises everyone’s insurance premiums. The opposite might very well be true. Why do you say that?
If helmets are voluntary, then helmet-wearers get better insurance rates for two reasons. First, helmets prevent injuries. Second, by wearing a helmet you can advertise that you’re a generally cautious person — the sort who probably gets his brakes checked regularly and so on. If helmets become mandatory, you still get the first break — the helmet is just as effective when it’s mandatory. But you no longer have an opportunity to earn the second break, so your premiums might well rise.
Why are employees better off with some amount of monitoring from their employers?
If your employer had no way of knowing whether you were showing up for work or performing any of your duties, it’s unlikely he’d be willing to pay you very much. The more he can verify, the more valuable you’re likely to be. So, for example, software programmes that keep track of office workers’ keystrokes, while they might feel intrusive to the worker, are also making that worker more valuable and quite likely account for the employer’s willingness to pay the worker’s salary.
Why does the business world reward good dressers?
I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that the ability to dress well is a signal of several valuable skills: The ability to observe fashion trends, the intuition to understand the limits of what’s acceptable, and the talent to be creative within those well-defined limits.
What made you write The Armchair Economist?
One day in 1991, I walked into a medium-sized bookstore and counted over 80 titles on quantum physics and the history of the universe. A few shelves over I found Richard Dawkins’s bestseller The Selfish Gene along with dozens of others explaining Darwinan evolution and the genetic code. In the best of these books, I discovered natural wonders, confronted mysteries, learned new ways of thinking, and felt I had shared in a great intellectual adventure, founded on ideas that are dazzling in their scope and their simplicity. Economics, too, is a great intellectual adventure, but I could find, in 1991, not a single book that proposed to share that adventure with the general public. There was nothing that revealed the economist’s unique way of thinking, using a few simple ideas to illuminate the whole range of human behaviour, shake up our preconceptions, and jolt us into new ways of seeing the world. I resolved to write that book. The Armchair Economist was published in 1993, and attracted a large and devoted following. In the intervening 20 years, it has earned much high praise. But what I take most pride in is that The Armchair Economist is still widely recognised among economists as the book to give your mother when she wants to understand what you do all day. After 20 years of correspondence with readers, I found new ways of explaining this material that I thought were even clearer and more engaging than in the original book.
That — plus my desire to update many of the examples for the 21st century — motivated me to write the new and revised edition that was published in 2012.
Interviewer Kaul is a writer and can be
reached at email@example.com