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Blinded by zeros; prostitutes and their johns; a user's guide to nuclear devastation


What a John Wants

Among men who pay for sex, the repeat customers tend to have the most enlightened attitudes toward women, according to an analysis of johns conducted by four economics professors. Drawing on a survey of 1,342 men arrested for solicitation in four Western U.S. cities, the authors found that men who frequent prostitutes tend to be slightly older and much better educated than the average American male, they have less sex but more partners, and (as you might expect) they have unhappier marriages. The authors split the johns into two categories: regular customers and “experimenters,” who claim to have been with a sex worker at most once before being arrested. Regulars are more likely to view going to prostitutes as a way to have sex without bothering with conventional relationships, and they claim to enjoy sexual variety and tend to be less interested in control during sex. Experimenters are more likely to view visits to prostitutes as a complement to stable relationships, and they tend to have more-negative views of both prostitutes and women in general. Overall, 74 percent reported that they always wear a condom (men with stable relationships were less likely to use protection, at least with prostitutes).

—“What Money Buys: Clients of Street Sex Workers in the U.S.,” Marina Della Giusta, Maria Laura Di Tommaso, Isilda Shima, and Steinar Strøm, Applied Economics


Pull the Plug, Hal

Computers can already beat you at chess; now it might be time to start letting them decide whether you should live or die. A paper by researchers at the National Institutes of Health suggests that the system for determining how to treat comatose patients might work better if the decision making fell to a computer program. Currently, if a patient has no living will, doctors in most states rely on the next of kin to guess what measures, if any, the patient would want taken. But studies show that your loved ones accurately predict your wishes only about 68 percent of the time, and the percentage doesn’t improve even when the patient has selected in advance which relative or friend should decide. The NIH researchers suggest that doctors could enter their patient’s circumstances and demographic characteristics into a program that runs comparisons with similar patients whose wishes are known: In the study, it predicted what an individual patient would want just as well as the patient’s next of kin. A doctor treating a comatose, 68-year-old, black, college-educated widower, for example, might be more likely to conform to the patient’s wishes by relying on the typical treatment preferences of older, black, college- educated widowers than by consulting the patient’s children.

“How Should Treatment Decisions Be Made for Incapacitated Patients, and Why?” David I. Shalowitz, Elizabeth Garrett-Mayer, and David Wendler, PLoS Medicine


A Victimless Crime?

The recording industry can stop blaming sagging sales and profits on online pirates: They’re cheapskates who probably wouldn’t have bought the albums they downloaded, according to an economic analysis of file-sharing and album sales. The study’s authors focused on the impact of Germany on downloads and sales in the fall of 2002: A sixth of all U.S. downloads are from German sharers, and during German school holidays—when kids are at home, online, and sharing their collections—the supply of pirated music available to U.S. listeners balloons, making downloading quicker and easier for Americans. But the authors found that albums that debuted in the U.S. when German kids were on holiday sold just as well as albums that debuted when German kids were in school. (They estimate the maximum number of album sales lost to piracy each week at no more than 368 copies.) Declining to endorse or condemn music pirates, the authors nevertheless point out that the net effect of piracy seems to be beneficial: The recording industry loses little or no money, and millions of American and German tightwads get their music for free.

“The Effect of File Sharing on Record Sales,” Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf, Journal of Political Economy (PDF)

Foreign Affairs

Osirak and a Hard Place

In 1981, when Saddam Hussein was just months away from starting up a nuclear reactor, Israeli fighter planes destroyed Iraq’s nuclear-production facility at Osirak. Could a similar Israeli strike neutralize Iran’s atomic ambitions? A recent paper published in International Security assesses this possibility, and the authors conclude that Israeli air power remains an effective “counter-proliferation tool” that could be deployed successfully against Iran. They estimate that an Israeli strike force would be able to penetrate Iranian air defenses without suffering so much “attrition” that the mission would fail. They issued this finding, however, with several caveats. Iran learned from the strike on Osirak: The critical parts of its nuclear facilities are hardened, dispersed, and well concealed. An air attack couldn’t destroy the entire program; instead, Israeli planners would have to prioritize targets directly involved in bomb production. And the success of a strike would hinge on the reliability of intelligence—a great unknown in any analysis. Finally, the ramifications of any attack, successful or not, could make the military option unattractive. World opinion could swing against the attacker, as it did in the case of Osirak. Perhaps more important, Iran is in a position to retaliate by stepping up support for insurgents in Iraq and for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“Osirak Redux? Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear Facilities,” Whitney Raas and Austin Long, International Security


Pound-Wise, Peso-Foolish

Before the Mexican government removed three zeros from its currency in 1993, anyone who wanted to know what it felt like to be a millionaire could hop across the Rio Grande and convert dollars into pesos. But tourists should beware: According to a study by three marketing professors, feeling like a millionaire tends to make you spend like one. The authors asked subjects in Hong Kong to imagine living on an after-tax budget of 9,000 Hong Kong dollars a month and to estimate how much they would pay each month for things like eating out, shopping for clothes, and going to movies and bars. The subjects were then asked to imagine living on 500 “Tristania” dollars, a fictional currency worth 18 Hong Kong dollars apiece—a budget equal in real value to their Hong Kong budget. When drawing up budgets, the subjects scrimped and saved their Tristania dollars but spent their Hong Kong dollars much more freely. This effect reversed when the authors made the Tristania dollars the less-valuable currency. This “money illusion” may explain Europeans’ false perception that prices rose dramatically when the euro replaced zero-laden currencies like the Portuguese escudo and the Italian lira.

“On the Perceived Value of Money: The Reference Dependence of Currency Numerosity Effects,” Klaus Wertenbroch, Dilip Soman, and Amitava Chattopadhyay, Journal of Consumer Research (PDF)


Thick as Thieves

Terrorists are turning more and more to crime to fund violence, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. A variety of factors play into this trend, notably the declining support of state sponsors and the increasing number of amateurs forming small, autonomous terror cells. While the most-lethal groups have been well financed, even small-time crime can provide enough money for a spectacular attack: The 9/11 hijackings cost about $500,000, but the July 7 London bombings cost only about $15,000. Oddly enough, religious groups may be more likely than political groups to turn to crime, since their sense of divine mission helps them convince themselves that any means is morally acceptable. (Islamic terrorists also find wiggle room by calling their depredations “economic jihad.”) Authorities suspect that profits from the sale of South American cocaine, Moroccan hashish, and Afghan opium support terror, but terrorist groups have also stooped to counterfeiting, bootlegging Viagra, sticking up jewelry stores, and heisting infant formula. The most creative? The two would-be suicide bombers who hoped to fund their trip to Iraq by faking a death and collecting on a $1 million life-insurance policy.

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