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Daredevil Ideas from the `Anti Dilberts'

By HUBERT H. HERRING

WHEW! Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres toss out so many ideas, from the oddball to the audacious, in their book "Why Not?" (Harvard Business School Press, due in October) that it makes you dizzy. And makes you think, too.

The two economists (and Forbes columnists) see themselves as the "anti Dilbert." Calling Scott Adams's cartoons funny but cynical, they proclaim themselves "optimists, perhaps even idealists." To that end, they clamber onto one rickety limb after another to look for answers, to make people "think about their ability to affect the world."

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Citing everything from game theory to "Star Trek" to "Gulliver's Travels," they push and nudge at problems vast and minuscule, turning them upside down, inside out, scouring for fresh perspective.

Do H.M.O.'s fail to "feel your pain?" Make them pay your heirs $1 million if you die. Is one-size-fits-all car insurance unfair? Have those who drive more pay more. Do too few people donate vital organs when they die? Make donation the default choice — if you want to be buried intact, you must say so — and organs will be plentiful. And on and on.

Some ideas are original, some recycled; the authors just want to get the pot bubbling. One intriguing notion: install airplane-style black boxes in cars for a morning-after back-seat peek. ("Just how fast were you driving my BMW last night, son?")

Or this, in their typical way of flipping a problem around: Instead of requiring political donors to go public, require donor anonymity. Ergo, no quid, no quo.

And here's one that could save billions of teeth-gnashing, finger-tapping hours: Instead of an airline, say, putting you on hold (repeatedly reassuring you, oh so sweetly, how much it cares about your business), have its recording promise to call you back when an agent is free.

Occasionally, ideas veer into the unworkable, like round-the-clock hotel check-in (the corollary: 4 a.m. checkout?), or the bizarre, like how to peel a banana. But more often, light bulbs pop, and the reader mutters, "Why not, indeed." 




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