Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
An experiment tests the honor system across a wide range of demographics and places.
For the second summer running, the beverage company Honest Tea set up unmanned stalls "selling" bottles of tea across the country. Passersby could take a bottle, and were encouraged -- but by no means required -- to slip a dollar of payment into a collection box. You could have made off with some free tea, but not, as it turns out, without cost to your city's reputation.
An honor system for tea was only phase one: the network of stands has now yielded data ranking Wall Streeters, blondes, people wearing sunglasses, and another 75 demographic categories based on their level of honesty. The company's calling it the National Honesty Index, finally putting that silly name of theirs to good use.
It's undoubtedly not a perfect measure of civic honor -- the winners changed substantially this year -- but it's good fun anyway. For one thing, no cross-section of Americans was less than 60 percent honest. Congratulations, America, you are not a nation of thieves and opportunists. Even Wall Street was 97 percent honest.
But top of the pops this summer were Oakland, Salt Lake City, and (it pains me to say) Fenway Park, where 100 percent of drinkers paid for their product. Explain that. At the bottom was Brooklyn, where only 61 percent of people paid for their tea. Midwesterners were slightly more honest than Southerners, and urbanites slightly more honest than suburbanites. Take that, Feargus O'Sullivan.
The least five honest locations were all urban landmarks, though. In descending order of propriety: the South Side of Chicago (82 percent), Denver's 16th Street Mall (80 percent), New York's Chelsea Piers (77 percent), L.A.'s Venice Beach (76 percent), and Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards (61 percent).
The second round of results is also a good occasion for boasting, joking, hand-wringing and excuse-making in the local press. The San Francisco Chronicle blamed the city's coming up short on steroid-using Melky Cabrera, the Giants star hitter, not paying for a bottle of tea. The New York Daily News cast doubts on the validity of the survey by pointing out that Chicago -- where "municipal corruption is a fact of life" -- had won the previous round of the competition. And Dallas Magazine, based on a Freakonomics post, decided to take temperature into account last summer, and determined that -- where else -- Dallas, where the temperature had been 101 degrees, was actually the most honest city (given the insufferable heat).
Full results here.