Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Super Freakonomics

Recently the sequel to “Freakonomics” has been published as “Super Freakonomics” once again authored by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. While the original book was a sort of tongue in cheek view to six questions with sharply differing topics, but the authors tied these together by mining data from various sources. This sequel is similar but poses only five questions which are fascinating in and of themselves but with a variety of related answers. While the first book clearly was intended as a sort of semi-serious entertainment, this one is sort of and entertaining response to some semi-serious questions. For example the first question posed is “How is a street prostitute like a department store Santa?” This question does eventually get answered but not before the authors wander off to discuss how women have historically been punished just for being female. They explore wage inequities, the punishing of witches, the limited career opportunities for women, and of course prostitution. Certainly these are all interesting and important questions which eventually lead to the fact that prostitution can be very lucrative for a very small investment in time and that it is essentially seasonal in nature – much like department store Santa’s.

Each of these questions posed by Levitt and Dubner is used as the basis to address various incentives and their impact but to explore other related aspects which frequently reveals some very odd and seemingly unconnected answers. Perhaps the most serious of these questions and answers is “Unbelievable stories about apathy and altruism”. However, the actual question posed is “Why did 38 people watch Kitty Genovese be murdered?” This question is used as a launching pad for a whole series of tangential but related questions like “How the ACLU encourages crime? “What caused the 1960”s crime explosion?’ or one of the most interesting of these “Why don’t real people behave like people in the lab?” This latter question illustrates the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty in relation to people or how people react when observed versus unobserved.

Clearly this book is more serious than the first one and while the authors continuously refer to economists this book really has little if anything to do with economics. It is mostly an examination of various topics of general interest and how they impact society and in some cases our economy. Perhaps the two most interesting topics they address along these lines is how the required car safety seats do not add safety to a child and in some cases are actually more dangerous than just using seat belts. Of course the economic tie here is the actual saftey results versus the legal requirement for the car seats and the financial advantage for the manufacturers. But the authors have a real sarcastic romp with Al Gore and Global Warming – errr – Global cooling – errr Climate Change. How the scientific facts do not support Al Gore’s inconvenient truth and some of the crazier ideas associated with counteracting climate change. They scoff at the windmills, the myth of carbon dioxide as the driver, and how volcanoes are more than just interesting landmarks. But then they go on to discuss some actual solutions – given that some corrective action is necessary. Of course some of these solutions while technically possible fall into the category of solutions looking for problems.

All in all this is an entertaining book but not the quality of the first. Still I highly recommend this book just for the section dealing with “What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?” That chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

No comments: