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When to Rob a Bank:

A Rogue Economist's Guide to the World

Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner

IRS is outsourcing collection of back taxes, with the collection agencies keeping about 24 cents on the dollar. The IRS knows who owes the money, and where they live, but because Congress keeps them understaffed, they don't have the resources to recover the money themselves. If the IRS hired more agents, it could do the job for about 3 cents on the dollar, but Congress won't authorize budget for that. Authors suggest reframe issue - call it a War On Tax Cheats.

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Only service people we don't tip in US are air hostesses. And if you try, they refuse, indignantly: "We're not waitresses".

Military draft bad. One thing markets are good at is allocating people to jobs. They do this with wages. So, we should compensate soldiers for the high risks they take. And this would more truly reflect the high costs of wars, leading to a better assessment of whether military action is the best choice.

Levitt proposal for NHS in Britain. Jan 1 each year, mail a cheque for £1000 to every British resident. They can do whatever they like with the money, but if they are sensible, should put aside something for health care, because they are going to have to pay out of pocket the first £2000 of their health costs, and half of costs between £2000 and £8000. The govt will pay for all expenses over £8000. Most people will come out ahead, because they will pay less than £1000. The worst case scenario will be those who consume more than £8000, because they will be out of pocket for £4000. But the biggest effect should be a reduction of health budget of up to £20 billion because people will stop using low-value services that they are presently consuming only because they are free.

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We wish pols would think more long-term, but they are in fact just responding to the incentives we put in front of them, and which aren't aligned to those of the electorate. Transport, health-care, education, economic development, are all big oil tankers that take ages to turn round. So suggest write pols a huge check if say, the Minister for Education can raise test scores by 10 per cent.

Way to fight back against anti-abortion protesters: Planned Parenthood branch got pledges for each protester recorded outside - agree to pay, say 10 cents for every placard waver. So the more protest, the more PP benefits.

"The greatest endurance athlete of our times, Mick Jagger ....

If, when Adam was naming the animals in Garden of Eden, imagine how much he could have made if commercial sponsorship was around then. Chicago White Sox starting their games at 7.11 instead of 7.30 because the convenience store chain 7-Eleven is paying them half a million dollars to do so.

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Slogan contest: write a 6 word slogan for the USA - best: The most gentle empire so far, You should see the other guy, Caution! Experiment in progress since 1776, Just like Canada with better bacon, Our worst critics prefer to stay.

Walking one mile drunk is 8 times more dangerous than driving one mile drunk.

Cheating: the point isn't that people divide into good and bad, it's that behaviour is determined by how the incentives of a particular situation are aligned. The stakes don't have to be very high for people to cheat. When no punishment exists, it's pretty damn enticing.

In one Australian medical study, doctors self-reported washing their hands 73% of the time. When they were actually observed, it was 9%.

Mumbai commuter trains big fine for travellers caught without a ticket. But for 500 rupees (about 11 dollars) you can join a club, which refunds your fine when you produce your receipt.

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Author keenly endorses traffic cops fining people cutting in line to avoid traffic queues.

Made some home-made ice cream - ingredients cost about twelve dollars to make a quart of ice cream that didn't taste very good, as opposed to paying the same price for about 4 times the quantity of a better tasting ice cream made commercially.

If everybody changed from eating beef to eating chicken, the environment would be better off by a max of 10%. But if everybody switched to a vegan diet, 80%. But 'going vegan' doesn't have much publicity impact compared to other environment campaigns. And meat is something we choose to cook and eat, whereas things like coal-fired power stations are imposed on us by either govts or corporates.

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Toyota Prius has status value bc it looks distinctive - everyone can see your gesture, whereas the Honda Civic and Ford Escape hybrids look just like their petrol versions.

Played a best-of-nine rock-paper-scissors game and threw scissors every time.

Catch embezzlers bc they don't take holidays.

Interview drug dealers. Said it's a business - as soon as a brother gets a good job, he's gone, doesn't want the risks any more. Said if wanted to punish effectively, need to be creative - make a boy wear makeup and a dress for 2 weeks. I guarantee you we'd have a hard time holding on to gang members if cops did that. Another guy said what cops used to do was drop a Disciple off in Vicelords territory late at night, and boy did you get your ass kicked! Another suggestion was to 'tax' them - catch a boy with drugs, take all his cash.

In a survey of 13 African countries 2004, women thought wife-beating justified if she neglects kids (53%), if she argues with husband (45%), if she refuses sex (36%), or if she burns the dinner (30%).

Most US states allow self-defence against home invaders as reason for killing, so best way to get rid of an enemy is to convince him to sneak into your house at 2am (maybe get wife to promise him sex?)

Best ways to reduce gun violence:
1. Pay huge rewards for tipoffs to police of illegal guns. A lot of it comes bc boys want to look tough by having a gun, and then doing something stupid with it. So flashing a gun at a party might make you look cool, but it comes with a big risk.
2. Make families of shooter liable for damages - garnishee their wages forever if necessary. If parents knew kid's behaviour would leave them forever in debt, they might make more effort to supervise.
3. Create a National Firearms Safety Admin like the Highway Traffic Safety Admin which funded data gathering on what caused crashes and what could be done about it.

What makes an actor attractive? Head size - all popular actors have unusually large heads.

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Propose a sex tax, on the basis that it would be popular bc Democrats are generally in favour of taxation and Republicans are generally opposed to people having sex. The highest rate would be paid by those indulging in pre-marital or extra-marital sex. Would only be levied on men. Payment would be voluntary, but would actually be about the only tax that would be over-paid. Idea has a sort of precedence - Gulliver's Travels described a place called Laputa, where taxes varied according to how attractive the man was, and how many sexual favours he received, "for which they are allowed to be their own vouchers."

Asked economists what they would do if faced with choice of giving 10 dollars to a beggar or to a vendor for a hot-dog. One said giving to the beggar only encourages more begging, which gets you to the situation in Calcutta etc where people disfigure themselves to make them more pitiable. Another said that he would prefer to reward the hot-dog vendor for providing a service. A third said he would give the money to the bum because the small amount would have a far more marginal impact for him than the hot-dog man.

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Nicholas Taleb has an extreme allergy to economists because he says their precepts are based on stupid questions asked in a context vacuum. "Decision making on Planet Earth does not usually involve exam-style multi-choice questions isolated from their context - which is why school-smart kids don't do as well as their street-smart cousins." He said his choice would vary depending on which he met first, and whether the bum reminded him of someone he liked or disliked. However, if he was debriefed immediately after the encounter, he would of course provide a far more rational-sounding reason for his choice.

Do kids try harder if bribed (short answer: yes). Offer $20 immediately before test (if score better than last time). Have to pay them straight after; promises to pay in a month's time don't work. Actually works best if give them money before test then take it back if they don't improve. Cheaper to give little kids trinkets; but teens you have to offer cash. And people get really upset about this expt - guy got huge number of critical emails.

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(London Times)

It's a good question: when is the best time to rob a bank? Mornings are better than afternoons - the average morning haul for robberies in the United States is $5,180 compared with $3,705 in the afternoon.

The criminal fraternity who are supposed to be experts in such matters seem to be unaware of this. Most strike in the afternoon and also prefer Fridays (of the 5,000 bank robberies in the US, 1,042 were committed on that day), although it brings no greater rewards.

If you are going to rob a bank, don't do it alone. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner quote an economics paper that shows the average swag from a raid in Britain is $30,000. Joint enterprise thievery yields about $18,000 per robber. Not bad, given that in the US, a successful robber gets away with $4,120 a time. The authors conclude that the return is not great compared with the high risk of incarceration. Robbers are arrested 35 per cent of the time in the US. So the best time to rob a bank, the authors conclude, is never.

Asking a provocative question, rootling around the stats, and borrowing heavily from economics papers has been a successful format for Levitt and Dubner since their Freakonomics in 2005. They followed with diminishing but still bestselling returns with Superfreakonomics (2009) and Think Like a Freak (2014). Now they have raided the 8,000 entries on their blog to create a compendium of their best posts on rogue economics.

We learn that the name Katrina slumped in popularity from 247th place in the US to 382nd in the 12 months after the devastation caused by the eponymous hurricane but that in Louisiana and Mississippi, the worst affected states, it grew in popularity.

Higher petrol prices lead to more traffic fatalities, because drivers turn to motorbikes. One 2014 study found that a 30 cent-per-gallon increase led to an extra 800 motorbike-related deaths over a nine-year period in California.

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They report on research that reveals the racism of online consumers. Two economists placed ads on local online markets, randomly altering whether the hand that was holding an iPod for sale was black or white. The black sellers received 17 per cent fewer offers.

One of their more interesting observations is that food packaging is actually environmentally friendly. They argue that green campaigners are wrong to protest against fruit and veg swaddled in plastic because packaging stops waste. The shelf life of a wrapped cucumber is increased by 3-14 days; apples in shrink-wrapped trays suffer 27 per cent less damage and as a result fewer are discarded.

Produce would rot sooner and head to the same landfill as all that plastic. In addition, as it rots it emits methane, 'a greenhouse gas that's more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide'.

Some things, however, deserve to be thrown away: blog posts among them. They are great for hit-and-run commentary on news items, giving links to other research and comment. Stuck on the page, many of these posts feel flimsy, trite and unanchored from their original context.

Unlike their previous books there are no big, provocative ideas, such as geo-engineering, or whether abortion cuts the crime rate. Instead, it's all a bit blah.

My theory is that the book is an ingenious economics experiment: how easily will punters part with £12.99 for something freely available on the internet?

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(Guardian Digested Read)

Ten years ago, as we were about to publish a book called Freakonomics, we decided to start a companion website. At the time, we thought it was a bit of a waste of time, a marketing tool through which readers could submit their own dumb-ass ideas and where we could dump some of our dreariest and most futile observations that had no chance of making it into any of our subsequent books. But guess what? It turns out there is nothing you cannot monetise, if the brand is big enough.

PS: As economists, perhaps we should have foreseen that possibility. PPS: Some of our readers reached that conclusion a while ago, with the publication of our third book.

Why do so many Americans over-estimate the probability of a terrorist attack? To be honest, I don't really know. One possibility is that the US government spends a lot of time fighting terror. Another is that when a terrorist incident does happen, it gets a disproportionate amount of media attention. My hunch is that terrorism is just really, really scary. (SDL)

Why is restoring military conscription a terrible idea? Because the only person suggesting it's a good one is Prince Harry. (SJD)

A Freakonomics proposal to help the NHS: It is obvious there is no disincentive for people to be ill if healthcare is provided free. Therefore, what I proposed to David Cameron was that he should send everyone in Britain a cheque for £1,000 each year. If people were prepared not to waste doctors' time with trifles such as death-related conditions, mental health issues and chronic illnesses, they would all be £1,000 better off. And the government could probably close dozens of hospitals. Mr Cameron promised to take our idea very seriously. (SDL)

What's in a name? Most people called Wayne end up in prison. However, our research has shown that no matter how you spell the name Stephen, you can consistently get away with murder. Thinking out loud, maybe all people called Wayne should change their name to Steven. (SJD)

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Why do people care more about losing a $100 bill than house prices falling by 10%, making them $10,000 worse off? My conclusion is either that people are not always very rational or that they are exceedingly rational. I can't work out which. (SDL)

Is cheating good for sports? After a few moments' reflection, I am convinced that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. What's harder to work out is what makes the difference between good cheating and bad cheating, other than that really good cheats don't get caught so you don't know if there has ever been any cheating going on. Hmm. This is trickier that I thought. (SJD)

When to rob a bank? Extensive guesswork suggests that it's whatever day works best for the robber. The main thing is to avoid choosing the same day as another robber - as then you will get in each other's way and have to share the proceeds. (SDL)

If I practised golf for 10,000 hours, would I get good enough to join the PGA tour? I was reading a book that sounded like the sort of one I should be writing myself - and it suggested the key to success was doing something for 10,000 hours. I’ve always wanted to be a tournament golfer so I immediately went out and practised for two hours. By the end of that session, I did think I was a bit better. But would the other 9,998 hours result in a sufficient improvement? Hard to say, really. (SJD)

Should people without sexually transmitted infections be encouraged to have more sex to reduce levels of Aids? From an economist's standpoint, the answer is an unequivocal yes, and I'm not saying that because most of us struggle to get laid. If more healthy people like me were offered more sex, it would reduce the chances of a healthy woman having sex with someone else who might infect them. (SDL)

Why have we called this chapter Kaleidoscopia? The simple answer is that we have run out of material for the book and have had to pad it out with a few personal stories and chats we've had with other rogue economists about whether they would give a beggar $10. The more complex answer comes as another question. Does anyone ever really know when enough is enough?

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