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Freakonomics: Saving the environment, or just showing off?

A cameraman takes video of the new 'Prius a' (alpha) minivan-style hybrid vehicles by Japan's auto maker Toyota Motor in Tokyo on May 13, 2011.

Kai Ryssdal: It's time for a little bit of Freakonomics Radio, that moment every couple of weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner, co-author of the books and blog of the same name, it is the hidden side of everything. Dubner, welcome back.

Stephen Dubner: Thanks Kai. You know, I've got a burning question. I was wondering, what kind of car do you drive?

Ryssdal: OK, one: why? But two: I have four kids, man -- I drive a minivan.

Dubner: And what do you think that minivan says about you, Kai Ryssdal the man?

Ryssdal: It says I'm unbelievably lame, that's what it says. I'm not how I used to be.

Dubner: I would argue to counter that. Let me say this: The fact is that we drive what we drive in some part to tell the world who we are. Some people may want to show that they've got a lot of money. Some people want to show they care a lot about the environment. Or in your case, that you're a good family man.

Ryssdal: And proud of it, but go ahead.

Dubner: A lame family man, but proud about it. And now, there are other ways to signal the world who you are, obviously, not just a car. I want you to listen to Tim Harford, who's an economist and author from London.

Tim Harford: The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, when he was leader of the opposition -- he was trying to get elected -- he wanted to convince people that he was a soft, caring guy and he installed a little windmill on his house. Now, it turns out wind power can be pretty effective. But you need a really, really big windmill in a really windy location to be efficient.

Ryssdal: Sounds a little bit like politics over power generation, right? Because you're not getting a lot of wattage out of that little thing?

Dubner: Not a lot of wattage, but he did get elected, right? Whether the windmill was responsible, it's impossible to say. But if nothing else, Cameron showed off some behavior here that you have to call "conspicuous." And economists love conspicuous behavior. You go back to Thorstein Veblen a century ago, who coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption," which we all know means that you spend money in order to show off your wealth, right? Cameron, though, was spending money to show off something else -- he wanted to show off his environmental bonafides. Now, economists have a name for this, too, which is "conspicuous conservation."

Here's how a young economics researcher at Berkeley named Steve Sexton describes it.

Steve Sexton: A sort of "Keeping Up with the Joneses"-type concept but applied to efforts to make society better. I will be competing with my neighbors to donate to a charity, for instance, or to reduce energy conservation or environmental impacts.

Ryssdal: We've all seen these people, right? They're the compact florescent light bulb folks, they are the bring your own bag into the grocery store -- all stuff trying to save the planet.

Dubner: That's right. Now the economist Steve Sexton, I have to say, has a twin sister whose name is Alison, who's also a young economist. Now these young twin Sexton economists just did a very interesting study where they looked at who buys a hybrid Toyota Prius, and why.

Ryssdal: Out here, by the way, everybody buys them. And even Toyota says they've just sold their millionth, right?

Dubner: Right. The Prius is the king of the hybrids. Now it's not necessarily because it's better than other hybrids; according to the Sextons, it's because the Prius has this unique shape which screams "hybrid," which screams "I love the earth more than you love the earth." Now, if you live in a community that cares a lot about the environment -- somewhere like Boulder, Colo. -- that's worth something.

Here's Alison Sexton.

Alison Sexton: The Prius market share increased disproportionately in greener communities relative to other hybrid cars.

Dubner: So there's your "conspicuous conservation" effect. And the Sextons estimate that buying a Prius can be worth a few thousand dollars to people in terms of their green self-image, and new friends, even better job opportunities, depending on where they live.

Ryssdal: I say this at no risk to my own job opportunity here, Dubner, because many people at Marketplace, well a couple anyway, have Priuses. But could it be, is what I'm hearing you saying, that driving a Prius is all about making yourself look good rather than actually saving the planet?

Dubner: Well it could be. You can't climb inside people's minds. But you can see what they do, and what people do is often a little on the silly side when it comes to conservation, including putting solar panels on the front of your house to show the neighbors, even if that's the shady side of your house; it's not going to generate a lot of power. But people do that. Now this Friday is Earth Day, Kai, and I'm guessing if you look around, you'll see all kinds of conspicuous conservation happening. Which on the one hand you could say, it's nice that people care. On the other hand, the problem is that can crowd out more worthwhile conservation ideas, things like just putting better insulation in your house. But it's hard to show off the insulation to your neighbors, not very sexy.

Ryssdal: Yeah, no, nothing sexy about that. You on the other hand, well, that's another conversation. Stephen Dubner, our Freakonomics Radio correspondent. FreakonomicsRadio.com is the website. Dubner, we'll see you in a couple of weeks.

Dubner: Thanks for having me, Kai.

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These Prius people don't know anything about cars. If these car companies would build a good 1200cc motor those cars would save tons more resources that any Prius.

The last Chrysler I owned had a 1600cc pushrod four and got over 50mpg at 55mph.

It wasn't fast but the gas mileage paid for a lot of steak diners.

Prius is junk.

I thought the story was good, but some of these comments are hilarious.

Dumb, dumb, dumb story. The first Freakonomics book was good, but this radio segment does nothing to contribute to the Marketplace program, other than to show Kai's "conspicuous crush" on everything Steven Dubner has to say... meaningful or not.

Kai,

Please take heart in the fact that there are plenty of other "lame" family men who still drive mini-vans as a matter of personal choice. Even though my days of hauling our kids and their friends to parties, theme parks and so forth are long gone, my last vehicle purchase was a new 2005 Dodge Caravan. I am still delighted with it even though I get the occasional teasing from colleagues.

As a road-warrior consultant from 1998 to 2002, I had the opportunity to rent quite a few of the "less emasculating" vehicles and found most of them to be too small for my 6' 2" frame, not high enough to help me see the road ahead and abysmal at cornering in tight places like garage parking. My minivan was better in all respects.

However, I did really like the Pontiac GrandAM SE and would probably buy one if they still made them.

My minivan gets 26mpg, is better looking than all of the SUV's and most of the minivan/SUV combos. Best of all, it paid for.

I recommend a look at the YouTube video of the Top Gear segment that demonstrates that a BMW M3 can get better mileage than a Prius - then check out the links of the offended Prius fans who don't get the joke. To me, this illustrates the self-righteous posturing behind a segment of Prius owners and their moral judgments about those of us who drive anything else.

By the way - my extremely well insulated house and efficient heating/cooling systems (which you can't see) go a long way to compensate the carbon contribution from my highly visible red sport sedan.

I enjoyed this story and got a laugh out of it, as I drove my relatively new Prius home from work. I can't speak for others obviously but I bought my Prius for a lot of reasons. I wanted to save the planet and cut down on emissions and my gas bill. I promised myself I was going to pay $100 to fill up my previous car only once. Fueleconomy.gov is an excellent site for all to see how we really can improve the environment and how many barrels of oil (both domestic and imported) we are each responsible for. If we think the instability in the middle east will be short lived we are fooling ourselves. Gas prices will increase. It is currently $4.29 here and rapidly approaching $5 per. So I purchased my Prius to save gas, get better MPG, cut down on emissions, cut down on endless consumption, I like the look of the car AND lastly I like making these statements. And yes, we have better insulation in our home and an efficient washing machine and dryer and furnace. No solar panels yet. :) Every little bit helps and I'm not ashamed of that.

Other comments accurately show the mileage superiority of the Prius over other hybrids (through 2010). As the owner of three Prius hybrids - first purchased in 2002 - 2 of which are at 150,000 miles and still highly efficient. The Prius is built in Japan and is simply a mechanically superior car. For years, the gov't paid $2000 to buy a Prius and the American public was simply ignorant (or should I say afraid) of a different technology. I would constantly have folks ask me stupid questions (does it use gas? do you have to plug it in?). I think the U.S. public simply does not understand the whole economics of international oil - the OPEC folks are simply salivating over having $150/barrel in the near future while the U.S. sells more inefficient vehicles (F150 pickups).

Public TV did a marvelous story on Denmark, which is moving towards all electric cars with batteries owned by the utilities and stations where batteries are interchanged in less time than "filling the tank" with gas. I am looking forward to the day this finally arrives in the U.S. - assuming we have a modicum of foresight to get there.

One final thought, anyone who has taken organic chemistry has a tremendous respect for the petroleum molecules and their vast uses in our society. After my course, I asked myself why anyone would want to burn these - instead allow future generations to have this resource!

Hate to break it to these economists, but this has been common news for so long that South Park did an episode on the idea in 2006 (Smug Alert), and a couple of car magazines have clearly documented that distinctively styled Hybrids significantly outsell their stealthier brethren, but hey, love seeing people called out on it.

Freakonomics is lame and this story is utterly stupid. Freakonomics usually eschews certain facts and emphasizes others to make a strained "cute" sometimes amusing point. Here it is utterly wrong. Name another hybrid or any comparable car that can seat 5 adults comfortable and get the same or better gas mileage than the Prius? You can't. No other comparably sized car gets near the gas mileage. End of moot point #1. Part of the gas savings come from the aerodynamics of the Prius's cheese wedge shape. There are only so many ways to make an airplane wing into a driveable car. End of moot point #2. Get Freakonomics off the air, stop wasting our time, Dubner.

As a happy Prius owner, I could not disagree more with this flawed story on Marketplace. We bought a Prius last year because we wanted to be environmentally conscious while saving money on gasoline. I smile when I fill up my tank on regular gas for a little more than $20 and when I get 50 miles per gallon. Furthermore, we used to own a Honda Civic hybrid and the Prius gets about 40% better gas mileage. As revealed by most of the comments, lots of us are motivated by doing something sensible for ourselves and the world, not by prestige or trying to look good.

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