Primary Sources

Presidential tea leaves; open-market elves; the fine art of sword-swallowing


School for Suicide

Not all suicide bombers are created equal, and terrorist leaders know it. According to a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the most spectacular (and technically difficult) suicide attacks are frequently assigned to older and more educated bombers, who are more likely to succeed. Using data collected by the Israeli Security Agency, researchers reviewed all Palestinian suicide attacks against targets in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip between September 2000 and August 2005—a total of 151 incidents that killed 515 people and injured almost 3,500 more. Ranking the suicide bombers by the perceived value of their targets (large cities and civilian targets were considered more valuable than smaller cities and military targets) and the number of people they killed and wounded, the researchers found that the five deadliest bombers were almost five years older on average than the typical bomber, that three of them either had or were pursuing advanced degrees (compared with just 17 percent of the sample as a whole), and that all five blew themselves up in major Israeli cities—the most prestigious and challenging of targets. These top five bombers killed an average of 22.8 people per attack and wounded an average of 88, versus 3 and 25.2 respectively for the bombers in the rest of the sample. Overall, younger and less-educated bombers were more likely to detonate too early, get caught by the authorities, or succumb to second thoughts. Human capital, the authors speculate, is the best yardstick for measuring competence at a task in which “on-the-job” training and “learning by doing” don’t figure into the equation.

“Attack Assignments in Terror Organizations and the Productivity of Suicide Bombers,” Efraim Benmelech (Harvard University) and Claude Berrebi (RAND Corporation), National Bureau of Economic Research


Hold Your Bets
chartAfter the last two presidential elections, the predictive power of exit polls has fallen into disrepute. But what about early polls? For Republican primaries, they’re worth watching, a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center suggests; for Democratic primaries and the general election, though, election watchers should be wary of their findings. The authors looked back at nearly half a century of preprimary polling and found that early Republican front-runners are usually safe bets: In seven open GOP contests, the early leaders (the candidates who drew the strongest support in national polls taken more than a year before the general election) won the nomination six times. The same wasn’t true, however, for leading Democrats, who got their party’s nod only 50 percent of the time. In the run-up to the general election, early polling has an even less-impressive predictive record: A review of polls spanning the same period “found many of them forecasting the wrong winner,” and even when they predicted correctly, they were often way off as to the margin of victory. Moreover, the authors note, past precedents are likely to be less relevant to the 2008 election: Front-loaded primaries, early fund-raising events, and multiple potential front-runners make this season’s guessing game harder—and possibly more pointless—than ever.

“How Reliable Are the Early Presidential Polls?” Nilanthi Samaranayake and Scott Keeter, Pew Research Center

The Internet

So You Want to Buy a Wizard

You’re a well-meaning dwarf battling an evil troll on the forbidding island of Freeport. If you’re to survive the fight, you’ll need thicker armor and maybe a magic potion or two. What to do? Press the “pause” button and visit Station Exchange, an online auction house flush with armor, weapons, and magic for players of the popular role-playing game EverQuest II. Sony Online Entertainment, which created EverQuest II and Station Exchange, recently completed a year-long study of the virtual auction house. The results show a thriving community whose members inhabit a virtual world, fight virtual battles, and buy and sell virtual goods—all for real money. Between June 2005 and June 2006, 9,042 role players spent $1.87 million on virtual goods, with an average of $91.55 per player spent on characters alone. The auctions included items ranging from swords costing a few dollars to complete characters with special powers for up to $2,000 each. While auction participants were overwhelmingly males under 40 (surprise!), a further demographic breakdown showed a sharp division: The most active sellers were 18- to 22-year-olds, while older players did most of the buying. The study suggests younger players may have more time to devote to scouring the game for marketable products, while older players have less time but more disposable income. Most sellers made between $200 and $500 a month, but the top two appear to have made Station Exchange into a virtual career: In one year, each sold more than $37,000 worth of virtual goods.

“Station Exchange: Year One,” Noah Robischon, Sony Online Entertainment


Throats of Steel

Those who live by swallowing swords seldom die by them, according to a report jointly authored by a radiologist and a noted sword swallower. Surveying 33 sword swallowers, the authors find that many suffered occupational maladies, from soreness (“sword throat”) to chest pain and perforations of the esophagus. (Especially harmful is a flourish called “The Drop,” in which the performer places the sword in his mouth, releases it, and lets it plummet into his stomach.) Nearly half reported removing a blade to find it smudged with blood, or vomiting blood after a show. Sword swallowers rip their innards most when swallowing curved blades, when taking in multiple blades at once, or when distracted by audience members (or, in one case, by an unruly macaw). Yet they have an amazingly low rate of mortal injury: The medical literature lists not a single fatality. More curious still, sword-swallowing wounds tend to heal better than similar perforations inflicted accidentally by doctors who insert scopes down their patients’ throats.

“Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects,” Brian Witcombe and Dan Meyer, British Medical Journal

Law Enforcement

The Out-of-Towners

Savvy tourists don’t need a regression analysis to know that they should ease off the gas when they come to a Podunk town, but two George Mason University professors now have the proof. By examining 29,752 speeding citations issued in April and May 2001 in Massachusetts, they found that who and where you are matters as much as how fast you’re going. An out-of-town driver stopped by a police officer in any given area has a 51 percent chance of getting slapped with a fine, versus 30 percent for a local, and the average fine for an out-of-towner is $5 higher. Local police are 10 percent more likely to fine out-of-town drivers and 20 percent more likely to fine out-of-staters, while state troopers ticket out-of-state drivers at a rate 28 percent higher than in-staters. The poorer the town (in terms of property-tax receipts), the more likely its cops are to target drivers passing through; fines also increase the farther away drivers live, since distance makes them less likely to contest the ticket. The study also found that women are more likely to get off with a warning, though the gender advantage disappears around age 75.

“Political Economy at Any Speed: What Determines Traffic Citations?” Michael Makowsky and Thomas Stratmann, George Mason University


Fair Trade

The knock on free trade has always been that it makes the poor poorer: Small-scale farmers have a hard time selling their goods at home when cheap agricultural goods from abroad flood their markets. This argument has been employed by foes of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which aims to eliminate trade tariffs between the United States and five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic; the agreement, critics say, will expose the poor countries to competition from the United States but offer them little in return, since 80 percent of the region’s exports to the U.S. market already arrive duty-free. But the pro-CAFTA case gets a boost from a recent study in which three economists predict that in most cases, the trade agreement will actually improve the welfare of the rural poor in developing countries. The study finds that although rural incomes will likely decline as protective tariffs are phased out over the next 20 years or so, food prices in those countries will drop enough in almost every scenario to make up the difference—often with extra cash to spare. The typical rural household in CAFTA countries devotes a substantial chunk of its earnings to buying basic food items, and import tariffs (some as high as 154 percent) inflate their cost. As a result, the authors find, “lower food prices would mitigate and, in most cases, reverse the negative effect that lower incomes would have on rural welfare.”

“Does Agricultural Liberalization Reduce Rural Welfare in Less Developed Countries? The Case of CAFTA,” J. E. Taylor, A. Y. Naude, and N. Jesurun-Clements, University of California, Davis


Pink Slips and Red Ink

Even as newspapers around the country send reporters packing at the behest of the papers’ investors, a new study finds that the fastest way to profits may be spending more, not less, on the newsroom. Two marketing professors crunched four years’ worth of economic data from 1,400 daily papers in the United States, and they came up with a formula to determine the most profitable mix of spending—whether in the newsroom, to improve news quality; in the circulation department, to hook more readers; or in the ad sales department. They found that investing in the newsroom has the biggest impact on a paper’s bottom line: Improving news quality not only increases circulation; it’s actually as effective in luring advertisers as putting money into ad sales teams. (The authors also found that having more ads in a paper increases circulation as well, because Americans love to flick through them.) The researchers then ran the newspapers in their sample through their formula and found that most papers (60 percent of papers with small staffs and 80 percent with large staffs) are near the right spending balance; however, many (22 percent of small papers and 15 percent of bigger ones) could raise profits by putting more money into the newsroom. On the other hand, cutting newsroom spending, because it exerts a negative influence on other forms of revenue, inevitably forces further cuts and sends a newspaper into a “suicide spiral.”

“Uphill or Downhill? Locating Your Firm on a Profit Function,” Murali K. Mantrala et al., Journal of Marketing


Stalin Was Right

“A single death is a tragedy,” Joseph Stalin said. “A million deaths is a statistic.” Now a psychology professor at the University of Oregon has tried to figure out why, with a paper suggesting that an evolved behavioral response may mean that we don’t feel that genocide is real unless we can focus on a particular individual. People understand reality in two ways, he argues: one is intuitive and experiential, the other is analytical and rational. Making decisions based on intuition is usually easier and more efficient than forming a judgment after analysis, and although our rational processes are supposed to monitor our intuitive impressions, they’re often “rather lax.” A case in point: When participants in a study were asked to donate money either to a starving girl in Mali or to a larger group of famine victims represented only by a number, they gave significantly greater amounts to the wide-eyed girl. Moreover, contributions to the starving girl actually dropped when statistical information about the number of people suffering from severe hunger accompanied the girl’s name and picture.

“‘If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act’: Psychic Numbing and Genocide,” Paul Slovic, University of Oregon