Primary Sources

How car insurance causes death; the Brits and foreplay; how long could you survive without the Internet?

The Nuclear Option

Nearly everyone agrees that reducing U.S. dependence on foreign sources of energy is a good idea. But—the enthusiasm of technogeeks notwithstanding—producing hydrogen-powered cars may not be the best way to achieve that, according to a new study by two English researchers. Although replacing gas-powered U.S. automobiles with hydrogen-powered ones might slow global warming, generating the necessary hydrogen would require building either a million new wind turbines (enough to cover half of California) or a thousand additional nuclear-power plants. Neither approach is at all likely, but a recent analysis of Japan's energy-security policy suggests that maybe the United States should take a hard look at the nuclear option. According to a report published by the Baker Institute for Public Policy, at Rice University, 77 percent of Japan's energy needs were met by oil in 1973, when OPEC turned off the oil spigot and caused an energy crisis. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the Japanese government worked rapidly to expand the country's nuclear capacity (it also developed programs aimed at substituting natural gas and coal for oil). The effort worked: by 2002 only 52 percent of Japan's energy came from oil—and whereas oil consumption in neighboring China and South Korea has more than doubled since the late 1980s, Japan's has been relatively stable. In the event of another oil crunch, Japan's investment in nuclear energy is likely to pay significant dividends. According to the Baker Institute's model, if the price of oil rose by 25 percent, Japan's nuclear capacity would save roughly $20 billion in GDP.

"The Arithmetic of Renewable Energy," Andrew Oswald and Jim Oswald, Accountancy; "The Role of Nuclear Power in Enhancing Japan's Energy Security," James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University

"Moral Hazard" on the Road

To the roll of highway perils—drunks, cell phones, teenagers—can be added one more: the insured. A new study suggests that requiring insurance coverage may lead drivers to take a cavalier attitude toward road safety. Economists from Columbia University and Harvard Law School's Olin Center for Law, Economics, and Business examined the effects of the compulsory-insurance laws and no-fault insurance systems that were gradually adopted in the United States from 1970 to 1998. (Under no-fault systems each driver's insurance pays for the damages that he or she inflicts, though all states give drivers some exposure to lawsuits for negligence. Under older, fault-based systems, the at-fault driver pays all the damages.) Forty-five states now have compulsory insurance, and fourteen have no-fault systems. The researchers found that relaxation of liability is correlated with a 10 percent increase in traffic deaths (or about 4,000 dead travelers a year). Uninsured drivers tend to drive more carefully (after all, they themselves have to pay for accidents): for every one percent decrease in the number of uninsured drivers, the number of fatalities increases by two percent. Despite the "moral hazard" posed by insurance, the authors concede that compulsory and no-fault systems aren't all bad: though more people may die, the victims' families are far better remunerated than in the past.

"The Effect of Automobile Insurance and Accident Liability Laws on Traffic Fatalities," Alma Cohen and Rajeev Dehejia, Journal of Law and Economics


Addicted to DSL

What happens when Internet users are taken offline? To find out, Yahoo and the media agency OMD commissioned a cruel study: a group of Internet users were unhooked for a two-week period and asked to record in diaries what they did and how they felt. The diary entries were almost uniformly miserable: the subjects discovered—doubtless to Yahoo's delight—that the Internet was more deeply embedded in their daily lives than they had realized. Activities such as checking box scores, e-mailing friends, booking travel, paying bills, and shopping were profoundly disrupted. Across the board, participants reported withdrawal-like feelings of loss, frustration, and disconnectedness after the plug was pulled. (The temptation to go online was so great that the participants were offered "life lines"—one-time, one-task forays onto the Web—to ease their pain.) A related survey of 1,000 online households supported the study's findings: 48 percent of respondents said they could not go without Web access for more than two weeks, and 64 percent said the Internet would be their first choice of medium if they had to live on a deserted island. As for how much one would have to be paid to give up the Internet for fourteen long days, the answers averaged $152. But this price may be something of an underestimate, since the researchers had a difficult time attracting guinea pigs for their Internet-deprivation experiment—they had to approach around 750 people just to get twenty-eight willing subjects—despite offering to pay participants $950.

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"Disconnected: Life Without the Internet," Yahoo and OMD

Late Night for Smart People

With vulgar fare such as The Man Show, South Park, and Reno 911!, the cable network Comedy Central has earned a reputation for pandering to the Rabelaisian tastes of slackers, stoners, and frat boys. But is that reputation deserved? The Annenberg Public Policy Center set out to answer this question by comparing viewers of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show with those of David Letterman's and Jay Leno's (relatively) staid offerings. The findings are surprising. To be sure, Stewart's viewers are much younger and much more heavily male than his late-night competitors'. But they are also wealthier and better educated: 30 percent have annual household incomes above $75,000, compared with only 25 percent of Letterman's and Leno's viewers. Some 39 percent of The Daily Show's viewers have college degrees, compared with only 29 percent of Letterman's and 27 percent of Leno's. In a perhaps not unrelated finding Annenberg discovered that Stewart's audience is also more politically aware: 46 percent of Daily Show watchers follow politics "most of the time," versus 38 percent of Letterman watchers and 39 percent of Leno watchers. And when the researchers asked respondents six questions about contemporary politics, Stewart viewers on average answered 60 percent of them correctly; Leno and Letterman viewers on average answered only 49 percent correctly.

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