The Behavioral Economics of Leftover Pizza

Jared would be proud of me. Whenever I grab lunch to eat in my office, I head over to Subway for a six-inch Veggie Delite with provolone. Just 280 calories. Yum.

Depending on my mood and workload, I usually gobble down my Subway lunch between 12:15 and 1:00pm.

On Monday, though, I started eating at 11:22.

Like any good economist, I asked myself why. What inspired me to eat an hour early? Did I face some new incentive or new constraint that caused me to eat sooner?

No, I didn’t. Monday was a normal day. No new incentives, no new constraints, no other changes.

Except for one other thing: I brought lunch from home. Two slices of leftover BBQ chicken pizza. Also yum.

Small slices - this pizza will go far

If you are a well-trained neoclassical economist, your initial inclination will be to search for a subtle link between these facts. Perhaps cold pizza tastes better at 11:22 than an hour later. But that’s not true. Perhaps I ate early because I saved on travel time to Subway. No dice; Subway is only 90 seconds away.

Perhaps these facts are unrelated, a mere happenstance. No again. From long experience I can tell you that I always eat lunch earlier when I bring it from home than when I get it at Subway. It’s a law of nature. Indeed, I have sometimes eaten lunch as early as 10:30 on days I brought it to work with me. This is particularly likely if I put the lunch in my desk, rather than in the refrigerator down the hall.

The explanation for this behavior is, of course, psychological or, in the lingo of economics, behavioral. My lizard brain excels at knowing when food is near. And in getting me to eat it. Millions of years of natural selection didn’t favor creatures that wait an extra hour or two before they grab lunch. If the food is at hand, eat it now.

So every time I bring lunch to work, I set off a battle of wills. My rational, patient, busy self who likes to eat around 12:30, and my primordial brain that wants to eat when the eating is good.

That old brain has, if you will, the upper hand. It knows how to get what it wants. All it needs to do is remind me that food is near. I often feel as though lunch is calling to me from my desk drawer or, slightly more faintly, from the refrigerator. But that’s really the lizard brain doing its thing.

Ignoring that voice takes willpower. But that saps the mental energy I need to focus on my work. To shut my lizard brain up, I have only one choice – to get lunch over with. So on Monday I happily started in on my six slices of pizza at 11:22, washed them down with some iced green tea, and got back to work.

Perfectly rational behavior, I should note, given my urges, yet irrational as well measured against my “real” eating preferences. So it goes in the battle between our inner selves.

But wait. Didn’t I say I brought two slices of BBQ chicken pizza from home? How did I end up eating six?

Don’t worry, I didn’t steal a co-worker’s pizza from the refrigerator (if such thefts are a problem for you, please see this post).

Instead, I played along with another feature of my lizard brain. Eating six slices of pizza is much more filling than eating two. So I divided each of the two large pizza slices into three smaller ones. I then got to enjoy eating six slices, not just two.

I realize that sounds kind of insane. My rational, neoclassical side agrees. But it works. Perfectly rational given my urges, yet irrational as well. Such is life.

Note: Pizza photo from Chocolate on my Cranium.

Sign Your Tax Return in Blue Ink

Esther and I got a scary piece of mail yesterday. The fine folks at the Internal Revenue Service sent our entire tax return back to us. Minus the accompanying check, of course.

A cover sheet said we had failed to sign the return, which we filed on a timely basis in October.

That sounds easy to fix, except for one thing: we did sign the return. If you turn to the second page of the return where it says “SIGN HERE,” you will see fine examples of both of our signatures. (You’ll just have to trust me on this – somehow I don’t feel like posting a scanned image of our tax return.)

So what happened? Our best guess, echoed by several others, is that the IRS thinks one of our signatures is photocopied.

They are not. Esther and I make a point of signing the tax form together. But this year we used a fine black pen (the Uniball Deluxe Micro, usually highly-recommended). It’s an excellent writing instrument but, to be fair to the IRS, the resulting signatures could be mistaken as photocopied. (Dear IRS: It would be nice if you mentioned this on the cover sheet.)

But, let me repeat again, they are not. Our signatures are originals. Part of me is tempted to go all CSI and find a lab to confirm that. But I think we will settle for a friendly note to the IRS.

And we will sign the returns again, this time in blue ink. Maybe with a Paper Mate Flair.

Visiting Brazil? Skip the Amazon and Head to the Pantanal

Posting has been light in recent weeks thanks to a two-week sojourn in Brazil and a week recovering therefrom.

I mostly turned off my inner economist to get in touch with my inner Darwin. So I have only a handful of economic observations:

  • After arriving in Rio, the car that picked us up was made in China, fueled by ethanol, and just as nice as a Subaru.
  • The weakness of the dollar vs. the real was noticeable.
  • Economic growth often poses environmental challenges. That’s certainly true in Brazil. But we also encountered repeated stories of how economic growth and conservation can be complements. Jaguars, for example, can be worth more alive than dead thanks to ecotourism. And the ease of getting jobs in the formal sector has reduced hunting pressure in some areas, sparking a virtuous cycle: more deer and more jaguars.

Like many first-timers, we visited Rio, Sao Paulo (briefly), and Iguacu Falls. But the highlight was three full days in the Pantanal.

To which you might ask, “the Panta-what?”

The Pantanal. It’s one of the world’s largest wetlands, home to jaguars, giant anteaters, innumerable birds, and the world’s densest concentration of crocodilians (the Yacare Caimans pictured above).

If you are into wildlife, the Pantanal is way more fun than the Amazon. Why? Because it’s easy to see critters when savannah mixes with small forests. In the Amazon, in contrast, many of the best birds and mammals are up in the tree canopy, 100+ feet above your head. In three days in the southern Pantanal, we saw 22 species of mammals and close to 150 species of birds (including Toco Toucans), many more than on a comparable trip to the Amazon.

For those into such things, my wife and I have a travel blog here and posted photos here. No jaguar photos, though. We heard them call at night and saw their tracks. But we didn’t see any (we did see an Ocelot). Clearly we will have to go back.

What Happens When a High-Profile Undocumented Immigrant Reveals Himself?

Judging by my Twitter feed, the most captivating story of the day is Jose Antonio Vargas’s account, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” Writing in the NYT Magazine, Vargas recounts how his mother sent him to the United States when he was 12 and how, in the subsequent years, he built a career as a successful journalist. But he never became a legal resident:

I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it.

I’ve tried. Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream.

But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.

Last year I read about four students who walked from Miami to Washington to lobby for the Dream Act, a nearly decade-old immigration bill that would provide a path to legal permanent residency for young people who have been educated in this country. At the risk of deportation — the Obama administration has deported almost 800,000 people in the last two years — they are speaking out. Their courage has inspired me.

There are believed to be 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. We’re not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read. I grew up here. This is my home. Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one of its own.

What should America do with immigrants like Vargas? Deporting him has got to be wrong answer. In almost all regards, he’s behaved like a model citizen, working hard, contributing to society, and playing by most of the rules. America is better for him being here. But, as his account makes clears, he knowingly and repeatedly misled employers and violated employment and documentation laws. Is there some balance by which he can become a legal resident, with hopes one day of becoming a citizen, yet still bear some penalty for breaking the law?

P.S. Vargas first offered his account to his old employer, the Washington Post. As Paul Farhi recounts, the Post gave the story a careful vetting and decided to drop it because Vargas had withheld some information. Vargas then went to the NYT, which rushed the piece into this week’s NYT Magazine. As Farhi notes:

This gave the story a singular distinction: It may be the first published by the New York Times that was developed, fact-checked and substantially edited by editors at The Washington Post.

Misleading Graphics, Not So Honest Tea Edition

Are you smarter than Honest Tea, the upstart purveyor of natural (and yummy) teas? To see, please compare the sizes of the yellow and black coffee cups:

How big do you think the yellow cup is relative to the black one?

About 1/8 the size?

About 1/4?

Or about 1/2?

Take your time. Think about it.

If you answered “about 1/4”,  Continue reading “Misleading Graphics, Not So Honest Tea Edition”

Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse

The Centers for Disease Control offers emergency preparedness tips with a sense of humor:

So what do you need to do before zombies…or hurricanes or pandemics for example, actually happen? First of all, you should have an emergency kit in your house. This includes things like water, food, and other supplies to get you through the first couple of days before you can locate a zombie-free refugee camp (or in the event of a natural disaster, it will buy you some time until you are able to make your way to an evacuation shelter or utility lines are restored). Below are a few items you should include in your kit, for a full list visit the CDC Emergency page.

     

  • Water (1 gallon per person per day)
  • Food (stock up on non-perishable items that you eat regularly)
  • Medications (this includes prescription and non-prescription meds)
  • Tools and Supplies (utility knife, duct tape, battery powered radio, etc.)
  • Sanitation and Hygiene (household bleach, soap, towels, etc.)
  • Clothing and Bedding (a change of clothes for each family member and blankets)
  • Important documents (copies of your driver’s license, passport, and birth certificate to name a few)
  • First Aid supplies (although you’re a goner if a zombie bites you, you can use these supplies to treat basic cuts and lacerations that you might get during a tornado or hurricane)

Once you’ve made your emergency kit, you should sit down with your family and come up with an emergency plan. This includes where you would go and who you would call if zombies started appearing outside your door step. You can also implement this plan if there is a flood, earthquake, or other emergency.

ht: Alex Tabarrok

Incentives and Property Rights, Dead Raccoon Edition

It seems like only yesterday that I met Rocky. Probably because it was yesterday.

Our smallest cat Caramel was staring intently upward. Following his gaze, I spied Rocky tucked between two branches high in the silver maple near our deck.

Rocky didn’t look well. Raccoons aren’t usually out and about at 3:00 on a sunny afternoon. Lounging in the sun isn’t their thing.

Esther and I thought about calling the animal control authorities–rabies is not unheard of around here–but decided to wait until morning to see if Rocky looked better. No point harassing (or worse) the poor guy if he’s just an eccentric raccoon who wanted some sun.

A higher authority came calling overnight, though, and Esther found Rocky motionless under our deck.

Wild animals are one of my domestic responsibilities, so it fell to me to go poke Rocky with a stick to check his status. Result: deceased.

So what do you do with a dead raccoon?

This is precisely the sort of question at which the web excels. Sure enough, “dead raccoon” generates more than 30,000 hits on Google. But they boil down to only three flavors of advice: (1) Do it yourself, (2) Make it someone else’s problem, or (3) Turn it into a media sensation by claiming you’ve discovered a monster.

#3 wasn’t really an option – Rocky was clearly a raccoon — so I tried the nice version of #2, calling Montgomery County Animal Control to see if they handle deceased raccoons. No dice. If the deceased is on your property, it’s your responsibility – bag him and put in the trash was the advice. If he were on a county road, however, that would be a different matter. Then the county would pick him up.

Fair enough. Property rights ought to convey responsibilities as well as ownership. I’m good with that. But I couldn’t miss the implied incentive. If I were so inclined, I could simply pick Rocky up, suitably attired in latex gloves etc. (me, not him), and deposit him by the curb. I suspect such littering is a popular strategy. People do respond to incentives after all. See, e.g., Stacey Robinsmith’s dead raccoon trilogy.

Being a respecter of property rights and embracer of responsibility, however, I went with option #1. Here are some tips if you ever find yourself in a similar circumstance:

  • Fortune favors the swift. Rigor mortis is your friend. Just trust me on this.
  • Raccoons have claws; use extra bags. Several cheery folks recommended putting Rocky in a trash bag. Well, his claws sliced right through that when I placed him inside. I ended up going with a full-on Babushka doll solution – five nested bags. That might have been a teensy bit excessive. But I suspect the garbage collectors will appreciate it.
  • Burial would, of course, be a more natural solution. But given the number of dogs, cats, and other critters that roam the neighborhood and dig better than I do, that seemed like a bad idea with Rocky’s suspicious cause of death.
RIP Rocky.