Tidbits from Superfreakonomics that illustrate the unifying theme of the book: People respond to incentives.
César Martinelli and Susan W. Parker, two economists who analyzed the data from more than 100,000 Oportunidades clients, found that applicants routinely underreported certain items, including cars, trucks, video recorders, satellite TVs, and washing machines. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. People hoping to get welfare benefits have an incentive to make it sound like they are poorer than they truly are. But as Martinelli and Parker discovered, applicants overreported other items: indoor plumbing, running water, a gas stove, and a concrete floor. Why on earth would welfare applicants say they had these essentials when they didn’t? Martinelli and Parker attribute it to embarrassment. Even people who are poor enough to need welfare apparently don’t want to admit to a welfare clerk that they have a dirt floor or live without a toilet.
Holding off death by even a single day can sometimes be worth millions of dollars. Consider the estate tax, which is imposed on the taxable estate of a person upon his or her death. In the United States, the rate in recent years was 45 percent, with an exemption for the first $2 million. In 2009, however, the exemption jumped to $3.5 million—which meant that the heirs of a rich, dying parent had about 1.5 million reasons to console themselves if said parent died on the first day of 2009 rather than the last day of 2008. With this incentive, it’s not hard to imagine such heirs giving their parent the best medical care money could buy, at least through the end of the year. Indeed, two Australian scholars found that when their nation abolished its inheritance tax in 1979, a disproportionately high number of people died in the week after the abolition as compared with the week before.
Sobering, isn’t it?