Primary Sources

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.

“Terrorist Precursor Crimes: Issues and Options for Congress,” Siobhan O’Neil, Congressional Research Service (PDF)

Homeland Security

The Fire Next Time

A nuclear attack would quickly overwhelm emergency-response teams in any city, but some cities’ medical facilities are positioned directly in the line of fire, putting their response capabilities at grave risk, according to a report that uses computer simulations to compare blasts in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and Washington. All four cities would find their main hospitals obliterated: The blast of a smallish, 20-kiloton tactical nuke would shatter windows 11 miles away; that of a 550-kiloton strategic weapon—the most common size in the Russian arsenal—would shatter windows 33 miles away. Lake Michigan would absorb much of the heat in Chicago, and the city’s sprawl would allow many of its hospitals to survive the plume of radioactive fallout after a tactical strike. In the more densely packed New York, the blast and heat of either a tactical or strategic strike would be devastating, and the fallout plume would stretch to the end of Long Island. In an attack on Washington, the fallout would be carried north and east, and in the case of a 550-kiloton detonation, the fallout plume would knock out medical facilities all the way to Baltimore. Time of day and weather are also factors; snow and rain clouds reflect radiation, spreading its harmful effect.

“Vulnerability of Populations and the Urban Health Care Systems to Nuclear Weapon Attack—Examples From Four American Cities,” William C. Bell and Cham E. Dallas, International Journal of Health Geographics


Let’s Get Physical

Not content with having perfected (at least in their own minds) the language of love, the French are now fine-tuning its body language as well. A researcher at the University of South Brittany enlisted a good-looking 20-year-old male to hit on 120 randomly chosen women at a nightclub in Vannes. “Hello. My name’s Antoine,” he would say. “Do you want to dance?” Then the researcher did another experiment, in which three other Frenchmen accosted 240 young women on the street and asked them for their phone numbers. In both cases, the cruising Frenchmen found that women were much more receptive if touched lightly on the forearm. At the nightclub, 43 percent of the women who hadn’t been touched agreed to dance, compared with 65 percent of the women who had been touched. On the street, one in five women agreed to divulge their numbers after being touched—double the number who agreed without a touch. Other studies seem to confirm the researcher’s hunch that women find touchy men more “dominant” and therefore higher-status and more attractive. He cautions, however, that North America is a less tactile culture, and that a positive response to discreet pawing by a stranger may, in fact, just be a French thing.

“Courtship Compliance: The Effect of Touch on Women’s Behavior,” Nicolas Guéguen, Social Influence


The Old College Buy

What moves alumni when they write checks to their alma maters? Altruism? School spirit? Getting the kids accepted? Largely the last, suggests a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research: Based on the (perhaps mistaken) perception that cash will grease the wheels at the admissions office, alumni are more likely to be generous to their former school when their kids are applying. The authors studied the donation patterns of 32,488 alumni of a selective university they dub Anon U, using mountains of data provided by the school’s development office. They reasoned that if alumni hoped for a quid pro quo, their donations would fluctuate according to three variables: the age of their children, whether or not their children apply to the school, and the results of the application process. The researchers note that this is a high-stakes game: Alumni contributed $7.1 billion to higher education in 2004–05. The study reveals that graduates with children are about 13 percent more likely to give back to their schools and that they tend to give more as their children approach college age. But donations among this group decline after an admissions decision has been made—and plummet if their kids aren’t accepted. Though the authors note that alumni without a stake in the cycle still often give generously, many alums who are parents “believe that donations buy them entrance into a lottery whose prize is admissions for their children.”

“Altruism and the Child-Cycle of Alumni Giving,” Jonathan Meer and Harvey S. Rosen, National Bureau of Economic Research

Law Enforcement

Shooting in Black and White

With their fingers on their triggers, police officers are less influenced by a target’s race than recent well-covered shootings of unarmed black men might suggest. A team of researchers put several officers and a sampling of civilians in front of a screen on which 100 images popped up: Half were of black men and half of white men, and each appeared once holding a gun and a second time holding a harmless object like a cell phone. The officers and the civilians had two buttons they could push—one if they thought shooting was warranted, the other if they thought it wasn’t. Both groups showed clear signs of bias: When they were shown either an unarmed black man or an armed white man, they took longer to respond, by an average of 10 to 20 milliseconds. But the police were able to ignore race when deciding whether to fire. They shot about 13 percent of the unarmed men, regardless of their race; the civilians shot about 35 percent of the unarmed blacks and nearly 29 percent of the unarmed whites. Other research suggests that police are rougher with black suspects—they’re nearly five times more likely than whites to die at the hands of cops—but this study concludes that we might be able to outthink our prejudices.

“Across the Thin Blue Line: Police Officers and Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot,” Joshua Correll et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (PDF)


The Unkindest Cut

More and more American boys are hanging on to their foreskins, according to data from the National Health and Social Life Survey, published in a British journal. From a peak of nearly 90 percent in the early 1960s, the circumcision rate dropped to about 57 percent by 2004. (Recently arrived Asian and Latino immigrants prefer to leave infants uncircumcised.) Another study in the same journal suggests that men without foreskins should envy their uncut peers: A research team found that five of the most sensitive spots on an uncircumcised penis are removed during circumcision. Each of them is more ticklish than the most sensitive spot on a circumcised penis: the scar where the foreskin was cut away.

—National Health and Social Life Survey; “Fine-Touch Pressure Thresholds in the Adult Penis,” Morris L. Sorrells et al., British Journal of Urology International