The Sexy Science

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Most of us think of economics as the "dismal science." Full of abstruse theories, graphs, regressions, let's face it: There's nothing sexy about a graph, or a liquidity trap (unless the liquid is gin). But here's what you may not know about economics: it can answer questions like, "why do female fashion models earn so much more than male models?" and "why do women's clothes button differently then men's clothes?" And it can answer the age-old question, "why is playing hard to get so darn sexy?" Well, today, we've got the Economic Naturalist on to explain how economic principles can answer these questions... and more. (Can you guess why brown eggs are more expensive than white eggs? Why drive-up ATMs have Braille keypads?) Take the challenge... Have you wondered why we do something one way? And can you guess why we do it that way? We want your observations... a question and answer based on the newly "sexy" science.

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Why do drive-up ATMs have braill? Because the blind passenger might be the ATM customer.

Sent by Rick Evans | 3:21 PM | 8-14-2007

Why do mens shirts and pants run true to size (15/33 is generally 15/33 no matter the manufacturer) while womens items' sizes tend to vary from manufacturer to manufacturer or sometimes even among lines from the same manufacturer? I don't have a good answer, but this could stem from when women worked outside the home less, and viewed shopping as an outing and didn't mind trying on different items.

Sent by Stacy R | 3:22 PM | 8-14-2007

Why are critical controls in cars like the headlight switch, windshield wiper and washer switches, windshield defroster, etc., not placed in standard positions but you can close your eyes and hang your dry cleaning in a car because the hangar hook is always in the same position?

Sent by John Webb | 3:31 PM | 8-14-2007

The question about animals on foot mentioned on highway signs refers to the fact that you can transport livestock via trailers, but may not ride your horse on the road.

Sent by Michele | 3:34 PM | 8-14-2007

I work in medicine and it seems like every day has a theme to it. That is a certain type of illness or a certain type of patient. For instance, the broken toe day, the bitter man in my
office day, or the eye infection day. Why does this happen. Is it pure chance.

Sent by Gayle Detweiler | 3:34 PM | 8-14-2007

Drive up ATMs need braille for blind customers who might be with an aid who drives them places but does not have access to their private information such as their PIN. It allows the blind person more autonomy and independence.

Sent by Kathy Hurst | 3:37 PM | 8-14-2007

Why, oh why do house numbers run in multiple digits? Wouldn't it be clearer to a street numbering system beginning with the number 1 and running logically through to the last house, rather than three and four digits per house?

Sent by Margo Miller | 3:38 PM | 8-14-2007

on the braile on drive-up ATMs--
My friend nearly always used drive-up ATMs, even though she was on foot. She did this because the walk-up ATMs often had long lines, while the drive-up ATMs were nearly always un-used. Similarly, the walk-up ATMs might be broken while the drive-up ones were still functional.

If a blind customer determined this difference in line lengths or machine function, she might well use the drive-up ATM since they can be used even if you are not in a car. A good reason to have included them in the ADA!

Sent by Lisa Vogt | 3:40 PM | 8-14-2007

If I drive ten miles to get my mail at the post office they charge me for renting a P.O. Box. If I stay home they will drive out and deliver it for free. Are they overpaying their rent so much that the cost of providing a box is cheaper than driving 20 miles round trip.

Sent by Joe Barnett | 3:43 PM | 8-14-2007

Why do clever explanation for every banal daily event, when packaged together inn book form, get so much hype? Why is it that the people that write them cannot explain why the rational, market economy is driven by irrational fools and knaves that consistently, year after year, seem to get themselves, and the rest of us, into a such a mess. Stagflation, the Savings and Loan scandel, Enron, Long Term Capital Management, Sub-prime Meltdown....the invisable hand seems to be always in the cookie jar.

Sent by George from Oregon | 4:02 PM | 8-14-2007

Today's show about the "sexy" science of economics was very entertaining. My reaction to Robert Frank's comment about his female colleagues' objection to the question (Why can people with partners more readily attract other {potential} partners?)is this: the story highlighted the fact that women are very attracted to a "bankable" man, but I think the reverse is equally true - and I'm a feminist. From a 62-year-old woman who has enjoyed male attention all my life (all right, not as much in the last 2 years!), my experience is that men are much more drawn to me when I'm with a partner than when I'm not: two marriages, two other important relationships since age 23. When Neal read the answer, I knew exactly where it was going to go.
Then there was the tribute to Phil Rizutto: thanks so much! Doris Kearns Goodwin ("Wait til Next Year") is one of my writer heroes. Though Phil played for the dreaded Yankees, I can forgive him after his passing.

Sent by Lyn Parker | 4:29 PM | 8-14-2007

This was a pretty silly program. At the risk of being rude (for which I apologize in advance) let me ask the "Economic Naturalist" (and all the other professional economists) the following question(s).
Why hasn't the economics profession come up with a plan for how to restructure the medical care insurance market so that it actually works efficiently to ensure everyone?
It's a science isn't it?
Please don't give me that old "values" excuse. (I've never heard of left-wing or right-wing chemistry, physics, or any other real science or engineering.)
If the free marketers truly value market driven solutions, why don't they design a restructured medical care insurance system that that works.
It is not a value judgment to have a market that leaves almost 50 million Americans uninsured - it's just stupid!
If the economics profession had more pride in itself (any sense of shame) it would put forward as a unified profession a comprehensive plan to restructure the medical insurance market.
That plan would solve the free-rider problem, the administrative costs inefficiencies problem, and the affordability problem so that the resource allocation efficiency, the technological innovation, and the commercial research progress advantages of a market driven system can be preserved.
This plan would also solve the perverse incentive of fixed cost recovery and lack of countervailing American bargaining power that makes pharmaceutical companies sell all of their products for much higher prices in the U.S. than in the rest of the world.
And finally this plan would reduce commercial interference with and cooptation of government regulatory and public health agencies.
If economics is really is a science than it really should be able to create a consensus on a comprehensive plan to restructure the medical insurance market that is really market driven (with a price signal, a quality signal et cetera).
If the economics profession doesn't put forward medical market plan then a single-payer system is inevitable. (And it will probably improve things in the short-run. At least 41 other medical care systems in the world work better than ours and many of them are single-payer government run systems. Many types of insurance only achieve economies of scale when they become monopolies.)
HINT: Get the private insurance companies out of the business of underwriting (deciding who gets to be insured at an affordable rate), and make them the bargaining agent/negotiator between the medical care consumers and the medical suppliers.

Sent by Ben Andrews | 4:47 PM | 8-14-2007

about the ATM: other than the obvious blind passenger (who would have to sit behind the driver and not on the "passenger" side), would supplying/buying 2 different models of ATM machine be more expensive for the (poor penniless) banks?
about the post office: not only does that sound like a Sienfeld rant, but it is a service that the postal service was built upon many years ago (and if you watch Kevin Costner movies far into the future) to deliver mail to every resident.

Sent by tim | 6:29 PM | 8-14-2007

As author Robert Frank infers, cost benefit analysis should not be thought of exclusively in dollars and cents. Personal well-being should be taken into consideration. Do I choose to take a direct flight from Chicago to Los Angeles or purchase a cheaper ticket that makes two stops along the way? I must weigh the assault to mind and body against the cost of reduced airfare. When hospitals across the nation closed highly specialized burn units due to operating costs, would the lives saved justify keeping them open? Cost benefit analysis is integral in our daily lives, even when we are deciding the best route to take to work.

Sent by Wayne Przybylowski | 7:10 PM | 8-14-2007

Joe,

The mailman doesn't make a special 20 mile round trip just for you. He stops at your neighbor on either side of you as well. So the only additional cost is the hourly wage it takes to walk from his car to your mailbox. Say you are out in the country and are the furthest away on the mailman's route. In that case the cost of managing a non-standard pricing set-up would be greater than the transportation cost of driving to your home. In addition, prices aren't set soley on supply. Most people who want a PO box want it in addition to thier home delivery. So there is a negligible loss of demand by charging for a post office box.

Sent by thesnakeguy | 7:35 PM | 8-14-2007

Why do most of the people who call TOTN have an American accent? I am assuming that there are other people w/ an accent like me -- fluent in English;love your show, and want to be heard. What is the Economics driving this?

Sent by Carlos | 12:31 AM | 8-15-2007

Ben Andrews, don't blame economists for the lack of single-payer health insurance in this country, blame a political system beholden to campaign contributions from insurance companies. I and many other economists have proposed ways of ending the current stalemate. See, for example, "A Health Care Plan So Simple, Even Colbert Couldn't Simplify It," (http://www.robert-h-frank.com/PDFs/ES.02.15.07.pdf).

Sent by Robert H. Frank | 7:50 AM | 8-16-2007

Someone questioned why there is 9/10 cent on gasoline prices. It was my understanding that the first gasoline tax was 9/10 cent ... after the tax was increased, someone decided to just leave the 9/10 cent (similar to 99 or 95 cents on other prices). Also, it seems to me back in the '50s or '60s, many gas stations didn't post that fraction (until mandated by law).

Sent by Marge C. | 2:39 PM | 8-16-2007

I interviewed my cab driver about "quitting early" during rainy days...his view is that he quits early because he is earning less money because the traffic is so crowded, he gets fewer fares and burns more gas

Sent by Deb VandenBroek | 8:31 AM | 8-17-2007

Robert H. Frank, I don't blame you or any other American economists individually for our failure to restructure the medical care insurance market.
But I do blame the profession and science (?) of economics for not putting forth a solution to restructure our dysfunctional medical care insurance market.
A unified organization comprised of an overwhelming majority of profession economists is the only institution that stands a chance of breaking the political stalemate to some form of rational restructuring of the medical care insurance market.
And it is the only institution that theoretically could marshal the type of objective, non-ideological expertise necessary to do the job right the first time. (There won't be 2nd chance to do it RIGHT!)
After raising a growing alarm for the past 20 years even the disparate sciences and professions concerned with global warming are slowly moving toward putting together a worldwide program to mitigate its effects.
Before the middle of the 20th Century the dentistry profession was campaigning for fluoridation of public water systems (at the risk of potential business losses by individual if fluoridation was widely adopted).
The only thing that individual economists stand to lose by jointly, publicly, and professionally warning that the healthcare market needs immediate restructuring is their ideological zealotry rating and maybe a think-tank grant.
The public may not understand that the negative externalities of our current medical care insurance market are possibly more serious in the long-run than the negative consequences of the Iraq War, BUT YOU DO!
American economists as a united profession should send a petition to Congress, and the President (signed by 90+% would be good) asserting that we have only 2 viable restructuring options to prevent the accelerating collapse of the medical care insurance market and only a limited time (probably 3 years at the most) to select one of those options and competently implement it, before we begin to suffer economic damage much more serious than what we have already suffered.
Think of the news headlines!
American economics profession says "Wake up and smell the coffee, the healthcare system must be fixed now!"
The 2 options that the petition should list are:
1) the nation must implement a single payer government run medical insurance plan that will take over all group policies, many of which hobble our large corporations in the global market while at the same time limiting labor mobility, and all individual plans, most of which currently subject all insureds to the terror of "rolling underwriting"; or
2) we must radically restructure the current private medical care insurance market so that private insurers are no longer in the underwriting business (as medical care gatekeepers deciding who gets to have insurance at an affordable rate). [See below for a terribly inadequate barebones outline.]
The economics profession should offer to create an advisory committee to help the federal government make its choice.
Finally the profession should offer to create a heavy-duty panel to put together the nuts and bolts details for whichever type of plan the federal government selects, but only after it has made its selection and has prohibited special interest political lobbying of the committee.
Even though the Supreme Court says it doesn't give advance opinions it is imperative that they concur in advance because there can be no risk that the plan is declared unconstitutional after it has been set in motion. (If the Supreme Court refuses to rule on the constitutionality of the whole plan and its major components in its final version, before implementation, then the Congress and the President will have to threaten to include legislation that revokes the Court's primary and appellate jurisdiction over most if not all of the plan.)
(Global warming is a problem of world-wide, industrial strength, multi-lingual, multicultural complexity. If this nation can't restructure the its healthcare insurance market then trying to do anything about global warming is a fool's errand.)
[A bare-bones outline of the 2nd option:
a) Insurance companies must accept all comers at the same price per policy (see below) and would therefore become intermediaries in the price/quality negotiations between the medical care consumers and the medical care suppliers and they will make their profits by putting together insurance bundles of particular quality levels of medical suppliers at pre-contracted rates within a range of basic premiums.
b) The poor and low income medical consumers would receive direct government subsidies to help pay for the policy of their choice.
c) All insureds would be allowed to switch insurance companies and policies with no more than 30 days notice required. (rapid quality and price signals.)
d) All insurance companies must offer at least 5 different policies covering all market price ranges from the "GOLD PLATED, RESORT HOSPITAL, BRAND NAME, HOLLYWOOD DOCTOR, NO CHOICE LEFT BEHIND, NO PRICE TOO HIGH, MEDICAL CARE" to the basic "LIMITED CHOICE GENERIC BUT PERFECTLY ADEQUATE, COMPLETELY EFFECTIVE, AND THOROUGHLY HUMANE MEDICAL CARE" (For example, the economy policy would guarantee pre-contract care availability from a minimum of 10 medical suppliers for each medical specialty or type of supplier within a 25 mile radius of the insured's home OR all 9 or fewer medical suppliers within that 25 mile radius and transportation costs covered for the 1 or more complement of suppliers beyond that 25 mile radius but no fewer than 10 total OR 20% of the total suppliers available in the 25 mile radius of the insured's home whichever is larger.) (essential for good quality and price signals.)
e) All the insurance companies would receive an anti-trust exemption for their jointly owned and operated non-profit administrative intermediary that would coordinate care among, make payments to, and collect refunds from all the medical suppliers. (STANDARDIZED FORMS!)
f) No underwriting would be allowed unless the transition period is over AND the prospective insured is over 25 years of age AND has at the time of purchase not been insured by any insurer or government program for more than 180 days AND no other legal requirement to forgo underwriting applies. (This should solve the "free-rider problem" without anyone being required to buy insurance, Mass. style.)
g) No "double-billing" for medical suppliers; care payments for any patient must be paid entirely by the insurance company for the full contracted amount or entirely from a very well off medical customer or other 3rd party. (The insurance companies must handle all of the price negotiations with medical suppliers for the system to work.)
h) Therefore no deductibles and no co-pays of any kind. (The over use of resources that they prevent is not worth the social cost of the under use that they encourage or even mandate for certain income brackets.) (Fallacy of composition.)
i) The premium includes everything or nothing for any particular course of treatment and all policies must cover all non-experimental, state-of-the-art treatments.
j) Pharmaceutical companies, their distributors, and retail sellers would be prohibited from selling any patented drug in the U.S. to anyone at more than 105% of the average or median world price per dosage unit (whichever is lower) wholesale or retail as appropriate.
k) Insurers must include all approved generic drugs in all their policies' formularies.
l) Insurers must include all patented medications for which there are no equivalent generic alternatives available OR if specific demonstrated patient side-effects and/or ineffectiveness preclude the use of all alternative generic medications in all policies' formularies.
m) Insurers must include any patented medication in their formulary for their lowest priced policy if the pharmaceutical company et al is willing to supply sell it at 100 % of the average or median world price per dosage unit (whichever is lower), wholesale or retail as appropriate.
n) Insurers must include any patented medication in their formulary for their next-to-lowest priced policy if the pharmaceutical company et al is willing to supply sell it at 101 % of the average or median world price per dosage unit (whichever is lower), wholesale or retail as appropriate.
o) And so on through their highest priced policy at 105%.]

Sent by Ben Andrews | 12:57 AM | 8-19-2007