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Freakonomics Minus Economics

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I listened to this “Freakonomics” podcast on fire safety, and not only does it have nothing to do with economics, it would seem that the people behind it are entirely unfamiliar with the economic way of thinking.

The podcast starts by telling us that fire deaths decreased by about 90% over the course of the twentieth century. These days, there are only about 3,000 deaths from fire in the U.S. each year. Great.

Then they put on a government fire-safety expert who tells us that’s not nearly good enough — he wants that number down to zero. Toward that end, he thinks we should all be required to have sprinkler systems installed in our homes, as California now requires for new houses.

This had me really ready for a dose of sound economics. I thought they would then put on an economist to explain why the optimal number of fire deaths is not zero because that would require a ridiculous expenditure of resources, if it’s even possible. I thought the show would explain that at some point, the marginal dollar spent on fire safety isn’t worth it.

But no. On the contrary, host Stephen Dubner simply took the bureaucrat’s word for it that tougher building codes have made us safer, that all we need to do to save more lives is enact even tougher codes, and that therefore we should do so. And that was the whole point of the podcast, apparently.

There was no suggestion that market innovation and increasing wealth may also have helped reduce the number of fire deaths (or, as I suspect, may have been the primary causes of the reduction).

More egregiously for a show supposedly about economics, there was no consideration of trade-offs. For example, no one considered that more expensive housing as a result of overprotective fire codes might actually make people with low incomes worse off. No one considered that sprinkler systems could cause flooding and costly water damage. And, of course, no one considered that I just might not want to have a sprinkler system in my house, and that it should be up to me because it’s my house.

One way to make sure no one dies in a fire — perhaps the only way — would be to force us all to live in steel cages and not allow us to have anything flammable. If the experts in government and at NPR follow their thinking to its logical conclusion, we may get down to zero yet.

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