Tim Harford The Undercover Economist

Articles published in August, 2005

Blood Sweat and Fear

An unwelcome departure from the usual writing. Published in FT Magazine, 27 August 2005.

The sun has set, but it’s a sticky evening in Washington D.C., hotter yet with a 13-month-old daughter wriggling in a carrier on my back. Together with my wife, we are returning from a trip to buy ice-creams when we hear screaming from across the street. A man is chasing a woman. For a moment, I think it must be in fun. Then she hits the tarmac and he punches her as hard as he can.

My wife yells my name. I tell her to take the baby and then I’m trotting across the street with the baby-carrier flapping behind me.

I’m the second or third man into the struggle. Only up close do I realise what’s really happening. The woman is on the ground and there’s blood everywhere. I look for a knife but I can’t see one. The attacker shrugs somebody off and hits her in the face again. He’s screaming. She’s screaming.

Half-heartedly, I grab him round the waist and drag him away. Someone’s coming in with a chair; I get out of the way and it smashes across his back. It’s like a movie, except the attacker doesn’t flinch when the chair hits. He seems unstoppable. Distantly, I worry about that. Someone’s lying on the woman to protect her. He gets punched because he’s in the way. There must be a knife, but I still can’t see one. Two of us are wrestling with the attacker, but our hands are slippery. I’m not getting as close as I could. I see the chair coming in again and step back. I hesitate and suddenly there are five or six men on him.

I move to the woman. She’s lying face up on the road and she’s covered in blood – her chest, her face, everything is plastered with it. She has a crop-top; it’s easy to see the knife wound to her belly. Two minutes ago there wasn’t a scratch on her.

She looks at me: “Help me. I can’t feel anything.” I am afraid of touching her, and I don’t. I tell her she’s going to be OK (what else?), and the ambulance is coming. A woman yells from a car that she’s called 911. I give her thumbs up, inanely.

The men kneeling on him want the police. The woman kneeling by her wants the ambulance. The victim looks up at me. “My cell phone is over there.” I pick it up and dial. I listen to myself calmly talking.

The operator is asking how old the victim is. She has long eyelashes. Underneath the blood, she’s beautiful. Then her eyes slowly close. I’m shouting now. Police cars scream in from every direction. The ambulance isn’t far behind. A fire engine too.

The police swiftly clear the streets and mark off the crime scene with yellow tape. They try to collect dozens of witness statements, but have no clipboards and few pens. I later find out they’re not used to witnesses: this kind of attack is unusual. Like a schoolkid I ask permission to cross the road and speak to my wife. I tell her to go home. She points out that I’m covered in blood. I don’t think any of it is mine.

Then I notice the blood on the road, the size of a picnic blanket. Some is thick and bright, as though someone had squeezed out a tube of children’s brightest red poster paint. I also see the serrated knife a few yards away. It seems huge. They take the woman away on a stretcher; the flesh on her arm is hanging in tatters. I realise she must have used her arm to protect herself.

Eventually, I get a ride in the police car to the station. I’m still wearing the baby carrier. The police station is quiet and tatty. There’s a television showing Troy. Patroclus is lying, pale and covered in blood, awaiting the coup de grace.

As more and more witnesses are ferried in, I realise this will be a long night. One man is tapping on his laptop. I wish I had a book or notepad. It’s boring here, after the excitement. I begin to realise I hurt my back hauling the assailant off the victim.

The detective shows up and tells us that the woman is still alive but in a serious condition and, if it weren’t for us, she’d be dead. Am I a hero? I was too hesitant. The man who went in first is the hero. Without him maybe the rest of us wouldn’t have joined in. I couldn’t have been the first.

It turns out the victim is a 24-year-old economist who is due to begin postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics. The attacker, who didn’t know her, tells the police he had taken drugs to celebrate his 21st birthday.

Eventually it’s my turn for a brief interview and a ride home. My wife has been waiting up for me. She tells me that our baby went to bed without a complaint. “It’s as though she knew that she had to be good tonight.” Only then do I find myself blinking the tears away.

27th of August, 2005Other WritingComments off

Cracking the lens

Dear Economist,
I’m busy and I’m looking for love, so I’ve posted my profile on some online dating sites. I make a good living in the City but, as I’m slightly overweight and my nose is too big, I’ve avoided including a photograph. So far I’ve not had a single reply – what am I doing wrong?

— Samantha Williamson, Shoreditch

Dear Samantha,

You can claim what you like and post a photo of a slim, stunning young model but, although such lies will secure you many inquiries, none of the dates are likely to go well. An optimum strategy is to go for exaggeration.

This is, indeed, what most people do, according to the economists Ali Hortacsu and Gunter Hitsch and the economic psychologist Dan Ariely. They studied 30,000 online adverts to see what people were saying about themselves and whether it attracted replies.

People claim to be richer, slimmer, blonder and more beautiful than one would expect: two-thirds of online daters have “above-average” looks and just one in a hundred admit “below-average”. So, claim above-average looks yourself, and who is to gainsay you?

It may also be a mistake to be too candid about your high salary. Women reply to rich men but, for some reason, men prefer women with middling incomes.

Your biggest mistake, though, is not to post your photograph. People without photos rarely get inquiries – with good reason. Anyone with above-average looks will post a photo and prove it; those without photos, therefore, will be assumed to be plain. But then, those who are merely plain can also post photos. Then, those who are ugly will follow suit to distinguish themselves from those who shatter the camera lens. You don’t want to bracket yourself down there, so point your sneezer at the camera and smile.

Continued on ft.com.

Update: We’re in the New York Times again, subscription free, so the full text is now also here.

27th of August, 2005Dear EconomistComments off

The parable of the talents

Dear Economist,
I am 17 and want to be a professional musician (I play the bass). My parents insist that I go to university to study music. Shouldn’t I just get out there and play?

— Joanna Kay, Chicago

Dear Joanna,

Your decision chiefly depends on the returns to human capital versus the returns to alternative investments. The opportunity cost of going to college is that you could otherwise work, gain musical experience, and put the money you earn and the college fees you save into a diversified investment portfolio. If the expected income from the portfolio is lower than the expected increase in your earnings after the age of 21, your parents are correct.

As previously reported in this column, the returns to such straightforward financial investments are much lower than the human capital investment of going to college. So your parents would seem to have a strong argument, especially since partying and late-rising at college is often more fun than real work.

But let’s not be hasty; a professional musician gets to go to a lot of parties, and different professions enjoy different returns to human capital investments. What, specifically, are the returns to education for musicians?

Thomas Smith of the University of Illinois, himself a jazz bassist, has examined the data on the earnings of jazz musicians. He’s uncovered a surprising fact: while the returns to schooling are 10 per cent for classical or other non-jazz performances, they are actually negative for jazz performances.

In other words, if you plan to play jazz, every year spent at school is a costly distraction. Professional playing experience, by contrast, is especially valuable for jazz musicians. Tell your parents to save their college fees and subsidise your first couple of years at the University of Life.

Update: The full text is now here because it’s also available in the New York Times without subscription.

20th of August, 2005Dear EconomistComments off

The private sector development blog

The World Bank’s first blog is up and running, thanks to yours truly and my wily colleague Pablo Halkyard. Wish us luck!

9th of August, 2005MarginaliaOther WritingComments off

A rat for an in-law

Dear Economist,

My son-in-law has been unemployed for a couple of months now. As far as I can make out, he’s enjoying a PlayStation lifestyle while being supported by the state and by my daughter, who has had to find a temporary job. What concerns me is that he’ll get used to this. Should I tell my daughter to apply pressure by quitting her job?

Yours sincerely,

Godfrey Pickens, Bedfordshire

Dear Mr Pickens,

The issue here is whether your son-in-law’s preferences will change over time – will he “get used” to a life of leisure, and so be less likely to work?

There are two competing views here. One is that he will become hooked on leisure (the “welfare trap” hypothesis) and will work less in future, even if his wife quits her job. The other, equally plausible in theory, is that he will become addicted to the extra income provided by his wife’s new job, and that if she quits he will go on to work harder than before.

Such competing hypotheses have been hard to test in the past. But economist John Kagel has succeeded in running a series of experiments that shed light on the matter. Kagel first forces his subjects to work for their income. Then, for a while, he provides them a substantial unearned income – a kind of welfare, if you will.

Unsurprisingly, they slack off at once. Later, he withdraws the welfare and observes whether they work more or less than before welfare had ever been paid. The answer: it makes very little difference.

This implies that your wife should keep working for a while and see what happens. No harm will result. The only question for you is whether Kagel’s findings apply to your son-in-law. Kagel’s subjects were rats. Do you think the parallel with your son-in-law is close enough?

Also published at ft.com

6th of August, 2005Dear EconomistComments off


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