Freakonomics: Death on payday?

Payday.

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment in your lives every couple of weeks where we talk to Stephen J. Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name -- it is, of course, the hidden side of everything. Dubner, where have you been, man? Missed ya.

Stephen Dubner: Here, there, everywhere.

Ryssdal: All over the place?

Dubner: Good to be back with you, though.

Ryssdal: And always good to have you. What are we talking about today?

Dubner: I got a question for you, Kai, a little riddle: What do Fayetteville, N.C., and Fairbanks, Alaska, have in common do you think?

Ryssdal: Uh, they both start with the letter F, that's all I've got.

Dubner: That is a Ryssdalian logic that I admire very much. But even more than F, they've both got military bases. Fort Bragg is in Fayetteville and Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks. And therefore, because of that, depending on the day of the month, these two towns are going to have a strikingly similar problem.

Here's Craig Kubala, who's a Marine in Fayetteville:

Craig Kubala: Traffic. Traffic is obviously exponentially increased.

And here's the police chief of Fairbanks, Laren Zager, who's got his own strategy for dealing with this problem on that special day:

Laren Zager: I follow the path of least resistance in my personal life to the degree that I can. So you become aware of these things, and where the traffic is and isn't.

Ryssdal: Again, I'm obliged to tell you: I don't like quizzes on my own radio program, Dubner.

Dubner: No you don't. That's why we bring 'em.

Ryssdal: What day are we talking about here?

Dubner: Plain and simple: we're talking about payday. So when you're in a military town, a lot of the population's getting paid on the same day, and Kai, what do people do when they get paid?

Ryssdal: I know what they do: in this economy, they save it, Dubner -- they go straight to the bank. No, they spend. We all do.

Dubner: They do. We go out, we do stuff, we buy stuff, we entertain ourselves. Here's Greg Adams, who's a clerk in a gun store in Fayetteville called Shooters Supply.

Greg Adams: So we'll be busy Friday, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and it'll trickle off, and by next pay period, we'll be standing around here, quiet, waiting on the next payday.

Now, up in Alaska, it's not just the military payday. You've also got, once a year, the permanent fund, the oil dividend that all the Alaska residents get. Usually comes out in October. Here's Adam Wool, who owns a nightclub in Fairbanks called the Blue Loon. He says business is great around the time of this permanent fund dividend.

Adam Wool: I've had certain performers, have requested coming up around that time. The Chippendale's dancers, the male revue. Their management is, he always wants to come up around permanent fund time.

Ryssdal: I guess because you know where the money is, no matter what the line of work is. Well, allow me to recap, then: So people get paid, they go out and do stuff. They buy guns, they go see exotic dancers. And so where are you taking me, Dubner?

Dubner: So no surprise there, a lot of activity, right? But there's a hidden side to this story. Let's hear from Bill Evans, who's a economics professor at Notre Dame. He noticed that something else happens when people get paid.

Bill Evans: The lowest number of deaths is the day before the first, and there's a large spike of mortality on the first of the month. And that pattern is very consistent over time across groups.

Right, so Evans and a colleague looked at all the deaths in the U.S. from 1973 to 2006. That's about 75 million deaths. And they looked at where they occur over the course of the month. And it turns out that mortality spikes on the first day of the month, stays high the next few days, and then steadily declines over the course of the month.

Ryssdal: What I hear you saying, Dubner, is that people get paid and then they die.

Dubner: That's exactly right. People get paid, and die. Now, deaths around military bases spike about 10 percent around payday, but it's not just young people -- military personnel going out and getting loaded and whatnot. It's the permanent fund dividend up in Alaska, senior citizens who get their Social Security checks, tax rebates -- any time there's a pay spike, you see that there's also a mortality spike.

Ryssdal: Well, all right, so I'm confused because the mind immediately goes to the place where people get paid, they go out to do stupid things and then they die. But clearly, that's not what's going on.

Dubner: Well that is a part of the story, especially with younger people. But with the older people, it's not that. It turns out that some of it is risky behavior, right -- drinking, drugs, fights. But the real answer turns out to be simply activity. You go out and you drive and you go to the mall and so on, and you know, you could all be safer sitting on our couches at home, but that's not what we do. And when we get money, we want to spend it. The ironic part to me is that Notre Dame, where Evans teaches, pays its employees just once a month. So that's a big spike all around town, and he personally has a strategy for keeping his three young sons safe around payday.

Evans: They're all swimmers, and the easiest way to keep their activity down is to keep them tired. So that helps discipline them. So keep teenage boys tired.

So Kai, I think this suggests what the obvious legislation that we should push for in Washington is: mandatory swimming for every citizen around the first of the month -- what do you think about that?

Ryssdal: Yeah, because they're doing so well, now there. I love what they've doing. Stephen Dubner, FreakonomicsRadio.com is the website. Dubner, we'll see you in a couple of weeks.

Dubner: Can't wait, thanks Kai.

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