#865: Tweak This We propose small fixes for baseball, weddings, salary negotiations and buying your morning coffee. Warning: They may be too rational.
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#865: Tweak This

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#865: Tweak This

#865: Tweak This

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NICK FOUNTAIN, HOST:

The other day, I had an early morning interview. And I ran downstairs to get a cup of coffee and ran into the guest. So I turned on my recorder, and I kind of bombarded her with my microphone.

Maybe we should say, who are you?

CATHERINE RAMPELL: This is Catherine - sorry, I don't know. You want me to give my name?

FOUNTAIN: Yeah.

RAMPELL: That's probably the easy question. I'm Catherine Rampell. I'm a columnist for The Washington Post.

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

Specifically, Catherine writes about the economy for The Washington Post. And it occurred to us that, actually, a coffee shop is the perfect place to show this thing that infuriates Catherine.

FOUNTAIN: All right. So you're looking at an iced tea. What size are you looking for?

RAMPELL: Can I get the 16-ounce iced tea?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Three-fifteen.

FOUNTAIN: How much?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Three-fifteen with tax.

RAMPELL: But it says on the board, 2.89.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So the tax is 26 cents.

RAMPELL: It's a little misleading. OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's well worth it.

RAMPELL: I believe you.

MALONE: OK. So maybe that sounds like somebody buying iced tea and then having to pay tax. But it only sounds normal because we've gotten used to it. What Catherine sees here is one price on the board and then this extra hidden thing that she has to pay for.

FOUNTAIN: And it's not just taxes. Sometimes it's fees and service charges that seem to appear out of thin air at checkout and drive us all crazy - booking rental cars, buying concert tickets.

MALONE: Or, like, have you booked a hotel room recently? Sometimes there's an Internet fee. Sometimes there's a parking fee. Sometimes there is something called a resort fee, even though you're staying in a place that's not a resort.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. It's by the highway. Anyways, Catherine brought her iced tea into the studio to explain why these fees and service charges are not just annoying, they are bad for the economy.

RAMPELL: Companies should be competing based on price and quality and not obfuscation. And the fact that companies do compete on obfuscation does not create a better economy, does not create a better experience for consumers and can, in fact, raise prices for consumers that they're buying stuff that they don't want.

FOUNTAIN: It's like everyone is a used-car salesman.

RAMPELL: I have a very good friend who's a used-car salesman, so I don't want to denigrate that profession specifically.

FOUNTAIN: So what is your one tiny tweak that would change the world?

RAMPELL: My one tiny tweak is that we should require more all-inclusive, upfront pricing - including taxes, fees, particularly in common types of consumer purchases where people like to comparison shop.

MALONE: The price should be the price. That is how Catherine Rampell would make the world better with one simple tweak.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANDY HAYES, LUCIEN PARKER, NATHAN BODIKER, ROBIN W. SCHWARTZE AND TY NOAM SONG, "FALL IN LOVE TONIGHT")

FOUNTAIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Nick Fountain.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone. And sometimes on PLANET MONEY, we tackle the world's big questions. But today on the show, we look for small answers.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. This is something we've done here before. We call up the smartest people we know, and we ask them, what teeny thing would you change about the world to make our lives better?

MALONE: We have a suggestion for how you can get more money from your boss.

FOUNTAIN: How to make the most boring sport a little less boring.

MALONE: And how to take down the wedding industrial complex.

FOUNTAIN: OK. Little tweaks that could make big changes to our lives. Go.

MALONE: First idea comes from a labor economist at the University of Notre Dame, Abigail Wozniak.

ABIGAIL WOZNIAK: So I have, actually, a little windup, if you are interested.

MALONE: Oh, yeah. Wind it up.

WOZNIAK: The moment at which this occurred to me was a couple of weeks ago. So I am naturally a football fan, since I come from Green Bay, Wis. And I was reading about Aaron Rodgers' contract negotiations.

FOUNTAIN: Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. And over the summer, he was asking for more money from the Packers.

MALONE: And what caught Abbie's eye was this quote from Rodgers, where he said something like, sure, I'm in a multimillion-dollar salary renegotiation with my bosses, but whatever. I've got an agent. He's dealing with it. I'm just going to keep practicing football. I feel amazing.

WOZNIAK: And I thought that just doesn't sound like any kind of job negotiation that I have ever heard anyone go through, personally.

MALONE: Right. Like a normal person - a noncelebrity quarterback, they're like, I know this is a good problem to have. I know I'm getting a good job, but this is the most stressful thing I've ever gone through.

WOZNIAK: Absolutely.

MALONE: Not, whatever. Someone'll fix it for me.

WOZNIAK: Yeah. And I think the thing that popped into my head was, more people should have someone like this.

FOUNTAIN: Abbie Wozniak's tweak is all of us, not just famous people, should have agents.

MALONE: Now she's not saying this has to be your own personal Hollywood agent, or even an expensive lawyer. We know about those kinds of jobs. She's saying, maybe there's a different job that doesn't exist yet. It'd be some intermediary you pay a flat fee to, and then they'll have a couple of conversations on your behalf when you need it.

FOUNTAIN: So imagine Abbie gets a call. Hey, it's the University of Michigan. We'd like to offer you a new job.

WOZNIAK: I would say, thanks. That's exciting. I'm using this new service. This third person is going to contact you with my questions.

MALONE: Is it weird to think about actually saying that to someone offering you a job?

WOZNIAK: It is weird, but it's all weird, right?

MALONE: Abbie thinks that having this intermediary negotiate for you could be a huge benefit over the course of your career.

FOUNTAIN: First of all, it would be this person's job to study your field and to know what you're worth, and this takes a little advantage away from your employer.

MALONE: Secondly, she says, there's research showing that if you make less at the beginning of your career, you're going to make less down the road. And so the sooner you bring someone in to negotiate a great salary, the better that is going to be for you.

FOUNTAIN: Also Abbie says this intermediary could help deal with some of the things that add to the gender pay gap.

WOZNIAK: Well, it's clear that two things happen. One is that women don't quite ask for the same things that men will ask for in a negotiation. But there's also evidence that when women ask, it's not received the same way as when men ask. So, again, an intermediary helps to fix that a little bit. I think socially, it just kind of jams the signal a little bit.

MALONE: If we are going to name this new profession, do you have an idea? Like, what would we call this thing?

WOZNIAK: You know, negotiator I think is maybe better than agent in terms of just capturing more of what's going on.

MALONE: It's good. Talk to my negotiator. Yeah, no, I could do that.

WOZNIAK: You could say neutral party, but I'm not sure these people are really going to be neutral.

MALONE: Intermediary is accurate but also kind of bland.

WOZNIAK: Yeah.

MALONE: So, yeah, like, negotiator's good. I like negotiator.

WOZNIAK: OK. I'm not in marketing. Yeah.

FOUNTAIN: Everyone needs a negotiator. I love it.

MALONE: "The Negotiator" - also a 1998 movie starring Samuel L. Jackson.

FOUNTAIN: What happens in it?

MALONE: He negotiates. What do you - I don't know.

FOUNTAIN: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOPHER HARRIS, DANIEL DELANEY AND TY NOAM FRANKEL SONG, "HANDS UP")

FOUNTAIN: Kenny has left the studio, we assume, to go watch "The Negotiator," the 1998 movie by Samuel L. Jackson. And in the studio now is Sarah Gonzalez. Hey, Sarah.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Hi, Nick.

FOUNTAIN: Your tweak is about the wedding industrial complex, and we gave you this assignment because you're about to get married. Congratulations.

GONZALEZ: Thanks. And my tweak comes from Damon Jones. He's an economist at the University of Chicago.

And, Damon, you're planning a wedding right now, right?

DAMON JONES: I just recently was married in June.

GONZALEZ: You just - oh, so you're out - you're in the clear.

JONES: I am in the clear, but I do have to write thank-you notes.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) Are you behind schedule?

JONES: Apparently, you have up to a year to send out thank-you notes.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Who makes these rules and the timeframes?

JONES: They just come down from the wedding gods.

GONZALEZ: I don't know that I would call them the gods. It would be, like, the wedding...

JONES: The wedding gremlins.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) Yeah.

JONES: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: Damon's tweak has to do with the way we think about wedding registries.

FOUNTAIN: I hate wedding registries. It feels...

GONZALEZ: Everyone hates them.

FOUNTAIN: Yes. It feels like this sideways way of asking people to reimburse you for, like, their dinner and their booze.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. And Damon also says that you can't even ask for what you really want on a wedding registry because it's just a little tacky.

JONES: There are some gifts that are not acceptable to ask for? You know, can you give me season tickets to the Knicks? But for some reason, plates and forks are acceptable. We have enough plates. We have enough forks. We don't need any more of those.

FOUNTAIN: I feel him here on the forks and plates. Like, maybe that made sense when those things were handmade in Pennsylvania, but, like, this stuff is getting cheaper and cheaper.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. And throwing a wedding is getting more and more expensive. So here is Damon's tweak.

JONES: I say let's discard the registry and maybe just have some tickets, good old-fashioned tickets for the wedding.

GONZALEZ: Wait - what? Sell people tickets to attend your wedding.

JONES: OK. We wouldn't use the word sell. That might be not popular.

GONZALEZ: And this is instead of a wedding registry. So, like, don't buy me a gift; just pay for your plate of food at the wedding.

JONES: Don't buy a gift; just help us to have the best wedding ever.

GONZALEZ: That's a good...

JONES: You know, you want to use the right term.

GONZALEZ: That's a pretty good gift.

JONES: You may want to charge different prices. OK, so...

GONZALEZ: No (laughter) different prices for different people?

JONES: OK. So a flat price is easiest, but it's not fair.

GONZALEZ: Like, maybe you want to cut your undergrad college cousin a break, but your investment banker friend, she's paying full price.

FOUNTAIN: This guy is cold and calculating, and I kind of like it.

GONZALEZ: He's an economist (laughter). But hear him out.

JONES: You have plus-ones, OK? This is...

GONZALEZ: Oh, plus-ones are the worst.

JONES: ...The most stressful thing - yes, yes.

GONZALEZ: So the plus-one issue is you have a really good friend that you want to invite to your wedding, but they have a new boyfriend or girlfriend and...

JONES: That you don't know.

GONZALEZ: That you don't know. And now you have to spend, like, about $300 a person for their food, their booze, their chair, their table, their fork.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. And if you have to pay for your new girlfriend's ticket, maybe she doesn't have to come after all.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Maybe she's not so important to you anymore. And there's another big benefit - no-shows.

JONES: Can you believe that you're going to go through this entire process and only to have someone maybe not show up...

GONZALEZ: No, don't tell me that.

JONES: ...At your wedding? OK. So...

GONZALEZ: I understand that it's a risk I'm taking.

JONES: Yeah. So why not share the risk? You have a deposit that's non-refundable in your ticket. And if you decide not to show, we understand, and we also appreciate that your deposit is going toward the food that's going to be sitting there cold and uneaten at the wedding.

FOUNTAIN: OK. So, Sarah, you're getting married in about a month. Are you going to take Damon's suggestion and charge for entry to your wedding?

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) No, no, I can't. I'm not even asking people to give me gifts. But I am going to go on the record right now and just say this publicly - if anyone RSVP'd to my wedding and bails at the last moment, like, that is not cool. We are not going to be OK. At least tell me two or three days before so I can let all the vendors know.

FOUNTAIN: Sarah, thank you so much. Mazel tov.

GONZALEZ: Thanks.

FOUNTAIN: And when you're out there, can you get Kenny to come back in?

GONZALEZ: Yeah.

FOUNTAIN: After the break - a modest proposal to make baseball more interesting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: All right. For this next tweak, Nick, I want to introduce you to Lieutenant Danny Roman. He's a top hostage negotiator for the Chicago Police Department.

FOUNTAIN: (Laughter).

MALONE: I'm just kidding. I'm just telling you the plot of "The Negotiator."

FOUNTAIN: Oh, how was it?

MALONE: I still have a lot to watch. Anyway, our actual final tweak is about baseball. It is also probably our most controversial tweak.

FOUNTAIN: Yes. Major League Baseball knows that its games are a little too long, and so they've been trying their own tweaks to speed up the game.

MALONE: Little things like limiting the number of warm-up pitches, making the commercial breaks between innings shorter.

FOUNTAIN: And that's all fine. But if they really wanted to speed the game up, they would be a little more serious about listening to a tweak proposed by this man.

STEVEN BRAMS: My name is Steven Brams. I'm a professor of politics at New York University.

FOUNTAIN: Do you like baseball?

BRAMS: I'm a fan but not a rabid fan.

MALONE: Not one who's willing to blindly follow all rules of baseball, I suppose.

BRAMS: No. I proposed some reforms

MALONE: Steve and some colleagues have proposed what is now known as the catch-up rule.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. Like, you want ketchup or mustard on that guy?

MALONE: Yes, not that kind of catch up. This is the kind where if you are losing, you would like to catch up.

FOUNTAIN: Steve, can you give us the simplest explanation of the catch-up rule?

BRAMS: In baseball, it works as follows - that if you're the team ahead in an inning and you're at bat, then you get only two outs rather than three outs in that inning.

FOUNTAIN: In other words, when you are ahead, you get fewer chances to score. Your opponent, who is losing, gets more chances.

MALONE: Steve and a colleague tested this out using historic baseball data.

BRAMS: We looked at 100,000 games.

MALONE: How many - 100,000?

BRAMS: We went back to 1967 - 50 years

MALONE: OK.

BRAMS: And we analyzed each pitch for over 100,000 games and asked if the catch-up rule had been in place, how would things have changed?

MALONE: As an impatient baseball fan, how much shorter would these games have been?

BRAMS: The average game, which now lasts three hours and five minutes, would be cut by 24 minutes, so you're cutting almost a half an hour from a game. And that's one of the biggest...

MALONE: Whoa. A half an hour off the game.

BRAMS: Yes.

MALONE: And not only were the games shorter, they were way more competitive, which Steve thinks would probably help baseball with its declining attendance.

FOUNTAIN: So how have fans reacted to this teeny, tiny tweak to America's pastime?

BRAMS: Well, critically, I would say.

(LAUGHTER)

MALONE: Let's just say there have been a lot of angry baseball fans.

FOUNTAIN: But Steve is not here to win a popularity contest. In fact, he tells us he's also got a version of the catch-up rule for America's actual favorite sport - football.

BRAMS: In the NFL, we would give the winning team only three downs rather than four downs to make a first down.

MALONE: Steve, you are, like - you're blowing up every single sport.

BRAMS: Oh, yeah. We have an idea for basketball that we would - instead of giving the team ahead 24 seconds to shoot, we'd give them only 18 seconds at the end of a game.

MALONE: Oh, my God.

FOUNTAIN: Wow.

MALONE: You are a true iconoclast.

BRAMS: Well, (laughter) we'll see what happens.

FOUNTAIN: We don't want to hold you any longer. Thank you so much for coming in.

MALONE: Yeah, thank you, professor.

BRAMS: Thanks very much.

FOUNTAIN: And don't go to any baseball games any time soon.

BRAMS: (Laughter).

FOUNTAIN: You might get tackled.

BRAMS: Yeah, I might be mobbed.

MALONE: Yeah, peanuts thrown at you.

BRAMS: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN ZIAPOUR AND DAVID GERARD LAWRENCE SONG, "FEEL ALIVE")

MALONE: Is there a tweak that you would like to see in the world? You can email it to us. We're planetmoney@npr.org. We're also @planetmoney on the Twitters and Instas.

FOUNTAIN: Oh, you're so hip.

MALONE: Mhmm.

FOUNTAIN: Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. Bryant Urstadt is our chief episode tweaker.

MALONE: I'm Kenny Malone.

FOUNTAIN: And I'm Nick Fountain. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN ZIAPOUR AND DAVID GERARD LAWRENCE SONG, "FEEL ALIVE")

FOUNTAIN: And we have one more extra special guest joining us in the studio today. Do you want introduce yourself?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NEGOTIATOR")

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: (As Danny Roman) It's me, Danny Roman.

MALONE: Lieutenant Danny Roman from "The Negotiator" in the flesh, and you apparently have a tweak for us today.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NEGOTIATOR")

JACKSON: (As Danny Roman) Yeah, I do.

FOUNTAIN: Great. What do you got?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NEGOTIATOR")

JACKSON: (As Danny Roman) Never say no to a hostage taker. It's in the manual. It eliminates options. The only option that leaves is to shoot someone. Understand?

MALONE: I guess it sort of makes sense. I mean, I don't - I don't know if that technically qualifies as, like, a tweak. It's more like advice.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NEGOTIATOR")

JACKSON: (As Danny Roman) Don't [expletive] patronize me, man.

MALONE: No - Lieutenant, no, no offense meant.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NEGOTIATOR")

JACKSON: (As Danny Roman) Say no again, I'll kill somebody, all right?

MALONE: All right. Listen; I think we're going to end this interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NEGOTIATOR")

JACKSON: (As Danny Roman) That's too bad. That's really too bad 'cause Danny Roman was just starting to like you.

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