Chinese oarsmen (not) hiring overseers to whip them

I had an econ class where this quote was part of the slides:

. . . in a story by Steven Cheung (1983, 8): “On a boat trip up China’s Yangtze River in the 19th Century, a titled English woman complained to her host of the cruelty to the oarsmen. One burly coolie stood over the rowers with a whip, making sure there were no laggards. Her host explained that the boat was jointly owned by the oarsmen, and that they hired the man responsible for flogging.”

Andrew Gelman has a deep dive into the origins of this Beeminder-relevant story (definitely embellished and maybe completely fabricated), along with some commentary on why this happens.


Dang, Andrew Gelman is amazing. I hope he’s not negative on commitment devices more generally!