Friday, 30 October 2009

“SuperFreakonomics”, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (Allen Lane)

Levitt&Dubner-SuperFreakonomicsThe follow-up to mega-selling and revolutionary Freakonomics

Freakonomics took the publishing world by storm in 2005, when it wormed its way onto pretty much every bestsellers’ list, selling over four million copies in thirty-five languages. It was the first book on economics I’d ever read (I’m a slow starter), and I was completely blown away by it. The authors’ approach, to me, was highly original, accessible and interesting. Therefore, when I found out that a second book in the series was coming out, I eagerly prepared myself to be impressed all over again.

SuperFreakonomics, as can be expected, unearths a number of freaky things in the economic realm, and the authors treat us to their opinions and observations on a broad spectrum of subjects. For example, they delve into the economics of prostitution (sometimes it pays to have a pimp); the ‘truth’ about terrorists’ socio-economic origins (it’s not what you think); grading your doctors is unfair (though they were also to blame for a lot of disease and death in the 19th Century); they explain their attraction to the idea of their LoJacked cars being stolen; why scarecrows work on humans, too; and other things. In fact, the chapter titles aren’t entirely indicative of what is contained in any given chapter – the authors sometimes come across as suffering from a mild case of ADHD, as chapters seemingly flit from one topic to another – Dubner and Levitt do, however, manage to tie off pretty much everything by the end of each chapter.

By far the most interesting chapter is the one that covers the economics of prostitution. Once again, as in Freakonomics, the authors have taken a look at what Sudhir Venkatesh has been up to. This rogue sociologist (also of Harvard) and author of Gang Leader for a Day (also published by Penguin) has this time been looking into the economics involved in Chicago’s prostitution sector. “wages are determined in large part by the laws of supply and demand, which are often more powerful than laws made by legislators”, which goes a long way to explaining why prostitutes in 1910 Chicago were able to make so much money: the “butterfly girls” at the Everleigh Club could earn as much as $430,000 annually (in today’s money). Today, however, perhaps due to the evolution of sexual mores, wages have been decreasing (pre-marital sex is now a viable alternative to prostitution for horny young men).

To refer back to the socio-economic origins of terrorists, the authors show how the belief that poverty breeds terrorists is not actually accurate. Through a lot of evidence and observations (always careful to highlight that they are inferring conclusions, not ‘proving’ them), they show that middle class educated men are more likely to become terrorists than poor people (who have more important things to worry about, like getting food). They show, in other words, that

“the kind of person most likely to become a terrorist is similar to the kind of person most likely to… vote. Think of terrorism as civic passion on steroids.”

This brings me to the storm of criticism that has been swirling about the internet concerning Levitt and Dubner’s chapter about climate change. Many experts, economists, and pundits in general have weighed in on the issue (see here, here, here, and heretold you there was a lot), to which any comment from myself would be insufficiently educated. While the chapter is fine and pretty well researched, it doesn’t have quite the impact of previous chapters. If I hadn’t read plenty of other stuff about the content, I probably would have been none-the-wiser; over the course of two books I have come to trust Levitt & Dubner’s instincts and research.

The book’s not perfect, as a couple of the chapters lag a bit, or go on for a little too long; the section about car-seat safety, for example, while interesting, felt a little repetitive, while the chapter about climate change flitted to grand theft auto (the crime, not the game). As mentioned above, too, they aren’t always as diligent as one might hope when it comes to discussing political hot-button issues like climate change.

One could write an almost endless review of this book (and its predecessor), but here are the things that are most important to know, regardless of whether or not you are in a position to agree or disagree with their findings and observations:

1. SuperFreakonomics is an engrossing and highly entertaining book.

2. It will make you rethink some existing biases and common-wisdom you perhaps take for granted, in an open, intelligent and accessible way.

Highly recommended.

Also try: Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics (2005); Sudhir Venkatesh, Gang Leader for a Day (2008); Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Point (2002) & Outliers (2008)

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