Subtitle: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. So, what do you do when your first book is a runawSubtitle: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. So, what do you do when your first book is a runaway success, by which I mean it does better than basically any other book in the history of its segment (in this case, books about economics)? Well, first of all, you make sure the second book has a name that makes the relationship between the two books clear (at least “Superfreakonomics” is slightly less lame than “Freakonomics 2: The Return of the Freaky”, but only just).
Second, you make sure you find lots of controversial topics (prostitution, climate change, terrorism, drunk driving). Third, and this is the tricky part, you find something interesting and new to say about them. On this third part, Messrs. Levitt and Dubner have mostly succeeded. Mostly.
The Introductin is subtitled, “In which the global financial meltdown is entirely ignored in favor of more engaging topics”. This is the odd thing about Levitt (the economist part of this economist/writer team). He's one of the most famous economists of our day, and he has expressed almost no opinion on topics such as global money supply or bank regulation. This is because his field is microeconomics (how individuals behave when making economic decisions), rather than macroeconomics (how the overall economy behaves). The good part about this is that he is able to actually find a fair amount of data to support his conclusions, making his track record far superior to the best of macroeconomists when predicting or explaining, um, well, just about anything.
The good thing about Levitt's style of microeconomics is that he's more or less willing to take the data wherever it leads him. In “Freakonomics”, he got into lots of hot water (and even more free publicity and thus book sales) by demonstrating that increased abortion rates were related (via a 20-year time lag) with a decrease in crime rates. As most economists (including Levitt) would say, people tend to respond to incentives. Say something controversial = more $$ in royalty payments? This gives a great incentive to find something controversial to say in the followup.
Here are his (and Dubner's) attempts to match that prior success: 1)walking drunk is more dangerous than driving drunk 2)some prostitutes earn a lot of money and are fairly happy, but the average price of prostitution (adjusted for inflation) has been going down for about a century, probably due to the rise in premarital sex 3)television seems to improve the lot of women in desperately poor and isolated (rural) areas, but also to increase the overall rate of violent crime (again, with about a 20-year lag) 4)carseats for small children work no better than regular seat belts, although this has had absolutely zero impact on the manufacturers' ability to get their use mandated by state legislatures 5)it is too late to prevent anthropogenic global warming, therefore we should start working on schemes like spewing hot sulfur gases into the upper atmosphere to create counteracting cooling affect
Some of these are interesting and possibly correct. Some of them are perhaps technically correct, but in reality useless (walking drunk may be more dangerous than driving drunk, if you don't care about whether you kill someone else or not, but calling a cab is safer than either). Some look to be only put there for the purpose of stirring up controversy. #5 looks like something you would only think was a good idea if you'd never attempted any large project before, thought things would of course go according to plan even though you have no test environment, or else maybe would say just to get attention.
Boy, did it ever. Paul Krugman devoted not one but several of his New York Times columns to talking about how bad this chapter of the book was, which causes one to wonder if he was secretly getting a cut of the sales. Numerous other columnists, bloggers, and book reviewers talked about it and the results was a virtual firestorm of discussion. Sales of Superfreakonomics have been, I am led to believe, robust.
Which leads to the next question: is this book actually good? Well, for the most part, yes. One of the things that I like about Levitt as an economist is that he tells you where his data is from, he knows the possible biases in it (and discusses them intelligently), and he makes testable predictions in most cases. In an extreme example, they paid for a crash test of a child dummy in a regular car seat themselves. Making testable predictions and doing original research are not things economists generally are known for; most of them spend their time spinning elaborate explanations for why any apparent real-world refutations of their chosen side's pet theories are not to be believed.
However, there are cases where this penchant for testability is missing. The attention given to Myhrvold (a onetime Microsoft exec and current patent troll) is mostly uncritical. The idea that we can correctly predict the net impact of sulfur in the upper atmosphere, makes assumptions about our understanding of how the world's weather works which are unfounded. Here, the book reads more like a typical economics book, in which the author(s) are happy to have concocted a plausible-sounding theory, and show little awareness of how many plausible sounding theories (from even the best minds) ending up wrecked on the shoals of reality.
It's kind of a shame that this is the final chapter of the book, because most of the rest is quite good. Even the more controversial sections are interesting reading, and aside from the section on Myhrvold and company, they have intriguing ideas even when I don't agree with everything they say. On balance, I'd have to say that it's not quite the equal of its illustrious predecessor, but it's close....more