Monthly Archives: January 2010

As we are increasingly connected to the internet or plugged into our iPhones, quiet contemplation is almost impossible – our attention spans are reducing to almost zero. There’s more but, if Foley is right, you’ve probably lost your concentration already, distracted by a tweet from a “friend” you don’t know, telling you things you don’t care about.

The problem with Foley’s entertaining tirade against the woes of late modernity is its lack of balance. He ignores truths such as the fact that most people are reasonably happy, whether rich or poor, African or European.

That is Julian Baggini surveying a number of books on happiness: ranging from empirical to delusional to depressive. Interesting throughout.

Just over two years ago, British soldiers in a remote region of Afghanistan came across a solitary man sowing seed – wheat rather than poppies. This was risky and unusual: a planting at the turn of the year was very late, and the area had been made dangerous by incessant fighting. But the farmer had his reasons. Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, had been assassinated a couple of days earlier. The man reckoned that wheat prices would soar as a result and wanted to cash in.

The story – told by Major General Andrew Mackay CBE and Commander Steve Tatham in a new paper on “Behavioural Conflict” for the UK’s Defence Academy – illuminates the situation facing coalition forces in Afghanistan. There has been a tendency among commentators and politicians to treat the “hearts and minds” aspect of counter-insurgency as a popularity contest. But the “voters” are not casual spectators, trying to choose between the Taliban or the coalition forces; they are individuals weighing up complex choices in difficult circumstances.

I met Andrew Mackay, who commanded 52 Brigade in Helmand Province (and who announced his resignation from the army in September), because of his interest in the problem of influence in conflict situations. He was reading books about behavioural economics, including my own, in the hope of adding some insight to experience gained in the field.

The remainder of the article can be read here. Please post comments below.

This Christmas, I asked my three children, aged 19, 18 and 16, for the following present: that they read the book Notte, Nebbia, a true story set in Gusen concentration camp, to help them remember the importance of tolerance, justice and freedom. This was also a condition of them receiving their Christmas presents, three presents for each child.
The girls read the book and received their presents. The boy (18) didn’t finish it. He said he couldn’t read a sad story during his holidays. So he received only two presents. What am I supposed to do? To hide the last present until next Christmas? To ask my son to finish the book and to read another one as a penance, or to think in a different way? Am I insane?
Francoise Gilli

Dear Francoise,

It is hardly insane to give your children incentives to do your bidding, but you have clearly bodged this scheme.

First, behavioural economists have found that offering miserly incentives can discourage people, relative to no incentives at all. Your incentive was a gift that most children tend to expect with no strings attached, which seems a miserly payment. No wonder your son disobeyed you, and I doubt if your daughters were quite as compliant as you imagine.

Second, you made a fundamental error by making a non-credible threat. You tacitly admit that it would be silly to hide the present until next Christmas, while demanding a second book compounds your folly. Game theory says that non-credible threats will be ignored, and your son is evidently a game theorist.

This is a lost cause. If you wish to control your children’s reading, I advise a significant incentive payment on top of the customary present. Alternatively you could simply recommend a book wholeheartedly. They may not read it, but at least you will look less foolish.

Questions to

Few things annoy me more than rhetoric that implies government spending is funded by the generosity of ministers rather than by taxpayers. (Alistair Darling’s pre-Budget report speech included lines such as, “Mr Speaker, we chose not to let people sink when they lost their jobs but to intervene to help them stay afloat.” No, Mr Darling, you didn’t – the taxpayer did.)

Such quibbles aside, it seems only sensible that when unemployment rises and companies stumble, the taxpayer should take up the slack. And yet the economic case for government stimulus is far from clear cut. Stimulus spending can erode private spending. My wife, for example, is a portrait photographer. Recently she secured a contract from a local council that kept her busy for weeks. While she was working on it she kept her head down, actively avoiding work in the private sector. A company looking for a photographer would have had to go elsewhere, perhaps paying more for an inferior snapper, perhaps giving up on the whole business.

The pro-stimulus view is that the government hires otherwise-unemployed workers, who spend money, which is used to hire other otherwise-unemployed workers, who go on to spend more money, and so on. No wonder such government spending is said to have a “multiplier”. But the example of my wife suggests that the multiplier could also be zero. Rather than reducing unemployment, the government may be shifting workers from the private to the public sector.

The remainder of the article can be read here. Please post comments below.

I have always been curious about two things. First, why are traffic jams always heavier on Mondays than on other weekdays? Second, I wonder why traffic is heavier when it rains. I know drivers get more cautious on rainy days, but even when it rains so little that I can hardly feel the raindrops, the traffic gets a lot heavier than on sunny days. Why?
Confused commuter, South Korea

Dear Commuter,

I began by checking the data, and they surprised me. Inrix, who supply data to in-car satellite navigation systems, reports that the worst mornings of the week – in the US, at least – are actually Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Monday and Friday are low-congestion mornings. Friday evenings are bad, but Monday evenings are particularly quiet. My guess is that Monday is a popular day to take a holiday or call in sick.

As for data on rain, two Australian academics have found that the heavier the rain, the lighter the traffic in Melbourne. You are asking me to explain two illusory phenomena.

So what is going on? One possibility is that things are different in Korea, but I am not so sure: I think that Australians, Americans and we Brits all share your perceptions that rainy days and Mondays are bad for traffic. And we seem to be wrong.

I think we need to turn to psychology for our answers. Norbert Schwarz – a psychologist who is well known to economists thanks to his work with Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman – has famously showed that if you want people to tell you that their lives are a wreck, just ask them on a rainy day. There is also some psychological evidence that Monday mornings depress us, too.

In short, rainy days and Mondays always get you down. You’re living in a Carpenters song, but please don’t blame the traffic.

Questions to

Episde four of More or Less airs on Radio 4 at 1.30 GMT tomorrow.

This week: can statistics help us catch terrorists? We’ll also be asking whether the cost of alcohol abuse to the NHS has really doubled in just five years, unveil the unexpected implications of exponential growth, and ask whether the decade is over or whether we need to wait another year. (It’s obvious; and then if you think about it, you’ll work out a different answer. And if you think about it some more, you may change your mind again…)

The program website is here, or you can subscribe to the podcast, or send us your ideas for investigations:

We invited Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, authors of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, to join us in the More or Less studio for a New Year special, in which – at their request – we studied cheating in sport, the unexpected consequences of hand-washing, “drill-and-fill” dentistry, and the performance of London’s congestion charge zone.

Read more on the program website; listen online (for the next few days) or, later, find the program in our audio archive. Here is Steve Levitt’s Lunch with the FT.

Those of us resolving to lead a lower-carbon life in 2010 could do worse than acquire a copy of Prashant Vaze’s new book, The Economical Environmentalist, in which the author picks over the fine details of his life. He works out how much CO2 he could save by driving more slowly, installing loft insulation or becoming a vegetarian. The result will be a little dense for some, but it is delightfully geeky and has the virtue of being right more often than not.

This virtue is underrated. Environmentalists have been slow to realise that the fashionable eco-lifestyle is riddled with contradictions. The one that particularly exasperates me is the “food miles” obsession, whereby we eschew tomatoes from Spain and roses flown in from Kenya, in favour of local products grown in a heated greenhouse with a far greater carbon footprint.

Other less-than-obvious truths are: that pork and chicken have substantially lower carbon footprints than beef and lamb (yes, even organic beef and lamb); that milk and cheese also have a substantial footprint; that dishwashers are typically more efficient than washing dishes by hand; and that eco-friendly washing powders may be distinctly eco-unfriendly because they tend to tempt people to use hotter washes.

The remainder of the article can be read here. Please post comments below.

I’ve been dating a great, loving and caring woman for a year and a half. She’s in her early thirties – eight years older than me – and works as a senior manager in a big company; she earns around £60,000pa, and her company provides a car and a city-centre flat. I am about to finish my PhD and my stipend is £14,000pa.

We’re in love and think it’s about time to move our relationship to the next level – which is moving in together. However, I feel that my girlfriend is stingy towards me. I’m the one who treats at posh restaurants and buys expensive gifts, and when we spoke about me moving into her flat she said that I’d have to pay the bills in return.

I’m finding it silly to mention such things, but they do annoy me. Am I shallow, greedy and opportunist? I understand her pay isn’t supposed to be a perk of our relationship but I must admit that, deep inside, I feel that a better lifestyle out of it wouldn’t go amiss.
Confused student

Dear Confused,

Your girlfriend is testing you, and you are at risk of failing. Naturally she is pleased to have a young, intelligent boyfriend, but she is worried that you only love her for her cash and will dump her for a younger model once you have a decent income of your own.

So she is using a “screen”, as described by Nobel laureate Michael Spence. By ensuring that she remains a cost centre rather than a cash cow, she is creating a situation that would be intolerable to a genuine gold-digger. She wants to see how you react, but by assuming that the “next level” is a free apartment for you, rather than a proposal of marriage, you are simply confirming her fears. Forget the flat, buy her a diamond ring, and she will mellow.

All this assumes, of course, that she is not just a miserly sociopath. Either way, good luck.

Questions to

Tim Harford’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.