Dynamist Blog

How Much Is a Kidney Worth? And a Plea for Donors

Levy Izhak Rosenbaum of Brooklyn has been sentenced to two and a half years in prison for illegally brokering sales of kidneys. He will also forfeit $420,000 in profit. It's the first case ever brought under the 1984 act outlawing the exchange of "valuable consideration" for organs.

Rosenbaum, who was caught in a sting as part of a broader corruption probe, may be the generous life-saver his supporters maintain. He may be the venial money-grubber portrayed by prosecutors. Or, like the donors who took money for their kidneys, he may be something in between.

But one thing's for sure: While it lasted, his organ business was highly profitable -- a textbook example of how prohibition produces extraordinary margins for people willing to buck the law.

In one case, a family paid Rosenbaum $150,000 for a kidney from a man who got only $25,000 for his organ. That $125,000 profit represents a lot more than a finder's fee. It's a reward for breaking the law -- for bearing the risk of going to prison and knowing how to circumvent the system. Those figures also establish upper and lower bounds for the market-clearing price of kidneys, not in some impoverished country with desperate people and questionable medical procedures but in state-of-the-art U.S. transplant centers.

Read the rest at Bloomberg View.

Jenna Franks is 26 and needs a Type O kidney

Since there isn't a market for kidneys, people who don't have compatible family or friends have to go out and beg strangers for help. Back in 2007, I wrote about Karol Franks's successful networking to find her daughter Jenna a kidney. Now Jenna's donated kidney is failing, and, at age 26, she's facing a return to dialysis. Karol has set up a Facebook page to try to find another Type O donor for Jenna.

Boots Were Made for Talking, About Who We Are

Thanks to everybody who answered my shoe survey. It plays a small role in my latest Bloomberg View column. Here's the column lead:

If you have been reading newspapers or websites, listening to the radio or watching TV over the past few weeks, you have probably heard the news: "You CAN judge a person by his shoes." Beginning in mid-June, word of a psychology article titled "Shoes as a source of first impressions" began circling the globe.

Describing an experiment by researchers from the University of Kansas and Wellesley College, many reports declared that shoes alone reveal just everything about the wearer's personality. "Overly aggressive people wear ankle boots," proclaimed a Los Angeles National Public Radio host.

What psychologist Omri Gillath and his team actually found was more modest. Without the cues of facial expressions and context, college students could guess basic demographic characteristics from looking at photos of other college students' footwear: gender, age and income. They could also detect the personality trait known as agreeableness, as well as something called attachment anxiety, which is connected to fear of rejection and was correlated with dull-colored shoes. That was all: not political affiliation, not how extroverted the wearers were, not whether they were overly aggressive.

The study made a solid contribution to research on first impressions, but it was hardly earthshaking. By getting so much attention, however, it demonstrated a sociological truth: People love to talk about shoes. Even those who dismissed the research as silly often felt compelled to call radio stations or comment on websites, providing details about their own choices. Why this fascination with footwear?

Like cars, shoes combine function and aesthetics, the promise of mobility and the pleasures of style. As apparel, they offer not only protection but transformation; as autonomous objects, they serve as "bursts of beauty that defy the mundane," writes Rachelle Bergstein in Women from the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us. Unlike cars, shoes are also inexpensive enough to permit people to build diverse wardrobes, changing footwear with season, circumstances and mood.

Whether Jimmy Choos, Pumas or Toms, shoes let us stand out as individuals while fitting into similarly shod social groups. The complex relationship between the social and the personal is why it's so hard to tell much about a shoe's owner from a photograph alone -- and why shoes are so interesting. Their meanings require, and sometimes reveal, broader cultural context. Bergstein tells the story of a Texas high school that in 1993 punished students for wearing Doc Martens, falsely assuming that the boots signaled white racism when in fact they merely reflected students' musical taste. A shoe, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, the senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, "is an accessory that can carry a lot of cultural meaning."

Read the rest at Bloomberg View.

And here's a photo of my early life as a shoe intellectual:

Virginia Postrel circa 1962

Traces of a Vanished World

The Free Press has accepted my book, tentatively titled Glamour Decoded, and sent me the traditional "Author Questionnaire" to provide information for the publicity and marketing departments. (They're not blunt enough to say it, but essentially for the people who won't read any of the book.) Although the questionnaire came as a .docx file and has a section asking about online activities, the initial instructions recall an earlier era (emphasis added):

The purpose of this questionnaire is to provide our publicity, promotion, and advertising departments with accurate information about you and your work. If you would answer each question as thoroughly as possible, it will enable us to answer questions from the press and the public quickly and accurately, and to obtain the best possible attention to your book. We will keep this information on file to be used in the preparation of news releases to the media. Please type your responses if possible. If you would like any of this information to be kept confidential, indicate so by placing a check in left margin of the question and we will respect your wishes. If you need more space, feel free to attach additional pages, indicating which question or section they correspond to.

They even spaced twice between sentences, just as I was taught to do in middle-school typing class. All that's lacking is a reference to carriage returns.

Is Time Inc. Trying to Save the Postal Service?

Times are tough in the magazine business and every penny counts. So I was surprised to receive not one but two copies of the latest issue of Time--a redundancy that was beaten when Sports Illustrated arrived, with three identical copies. Unless word has come down that Time Inc. is going to single-handedly cover the USPS deficit, something has gone seriously wrong in the printing and fulfillment departments. Or maybe the Postrels are just lucky.

Website Designer/Programmer Wanted

I am looking for someone to help me overhaul and update the non-blog portions of this site. If you're interested, please email me at vp-at-dynamist.com.

The Magic Washing Machine

One of the great miracles of industrial technology is the transformation of one of the most difficult of household tasks, washing clothes, into one of the easiest. (I'm doing it right now.) Although he doesn't note it in the talk, hand-washing clothes is so onerous that it is one of the first chores people who don't have washing machines contract out to even poorer people. (Some of the commenters, none of whom scrub their jeans by hand, thus see washing machines as destroying jobs.)

But if you don't want to use electricity, there's a new alternative to the old washboard and bucket called The Laundry POD. (h/t Greg Rehmke via Facebook.)

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