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Picking pennies in front of a steamroller: A parable comes to life

From 2011:

Chapter 1

On Sunday we were over on 125 St so I stopped by the Jamaican beef patties place but they were closed. Jesus Taco was next door so I went there instead. What a mistake! I don’t know what Masanao and Yu-Sung could’ve been thinking. Anyway, then I had Jamaican beef patties on the brain so I went by Monday afternoon and asked for 9: 3 spicy beef, 3 mild beef (for the kids), and 3 chicken (not the jerk chicken; Bob got those the other day and they didn’t impress me). I’m about to pay and then a bunch of people come in and start ordering. The woman behind the counter asks if I’m in a hurry, I ask why, she whispers, For the same price you can get a dozen. So I get two more spicy beef and a chicken. She whispers that I shouldn’t tell anyone. I can’t really figure out why I’m getting this special treatment. So I walk out of there with 12 patties. Total cost: $17.25. It’s a good deal: they’re small but not that small. Sure, I ate 6 of them, but I was hungry.

Chapter 2

A half hour later, I’m pulling keys out of my pocket lock up my bike and a bunch of change falls out. (Remember—the patties cost $17.25, so I had three quarters in my pocket, plus whatever happened to be there already.) I see all three quarters plus a couple of pennies. The change is on the street, and, as I’m leaning down to pick it up, I notice there’s a parked car, right in front of me, with its engine running. There’s no way the driver can see me if I’m bending down behind the rear wheels. And if he backs up, I’m dead meat.

It suddenly comes to me—this is what they mean when they talk about “picking pennies in front of a steamroller.” That’s exactly what I was about to do!

After a brief moment of indecision, I bent down and picked up the quarters. I left the pennies where they were, though.

P.S. The last time I experienced an economics cliche in real time was a few weeks ago, when I spotted $5 in cash on the street.

Update (2014):

That particular branch of the Jamaican beef patties place closed a couple years ago, but they have another branch on 125 St that I go to sometimes.

A couple months ago I noticed a 20 euro bill on the street and picked it up. Take that, economists!


  1. Entsophy says:

    Plus your food cost $17.25 illustrating that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

  2. Rahul says:

    Lesson: Never tell Andrew a secret. :)

  3. jrc says:

    There is this school in my neighborhood that trains newly blind people to function in the world. One day I see one of the students stuck in the median, away from the crosswalk, unsure about traffic. A big dude, with lots of punk rock tattoos. So I get him off the median, and we’re walking with his hand on my shoulder, but blind people walk slow (particularly newly blind people) and I’m late for a train (he’s also going to the BART station).

    A couple of blocks before the train, just as I’m about to get worried, I see his head pick up, then I heart it too…click, click… and coming up behind us is a blind devout Muslim man from the same school. He had clearly been there/blind longer – he was walking rather nonchalantly down the street, not bumping anything, not timid.

    Needless to say, I left the blind leading the blind. The fact that I left a man in a prayer cap with a man in a Rancid t-shirt, neither of whom knew the other’s appearance or their own Odd Couple-ness, made it even better.

  4. Nony says:

    Was Hotelling a Bayesian or a normal statistician?

  5. Neil says:

    During my undergrad, I borrowed an economics textbook from a friend in order to complete an assignment. While riffling through the book to find the appropriate page, I found a coupon for a free meal at the campus restaurant.

    When returning the book, I mentioned the coupon. The owner was aware of its presence; he was using it as a bookmark. I asked why he hadn’t redeemed the coupon. He replied that then he’d need to find a new bookmark.

    No such thing as a free lunch!

  6. Jack PQ says:

    Good story, but the $20 on the street is not a problem for economists. The Grossman-Stiglitz paradox is precisely about how there will always be _some_ $20 bills lying around, but not many. Or if you prefer, the denomination of the coin or bill will be inversely proportional to the frequency of finding it on the street.

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