Tag Archives: Steven D. Levitt

Superfreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

<em class="BookTitle">Superfreakonomics</em>, Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Harper Collins, 2009, 270 pages, C$36.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-55468-608-7

Picture this: You go to a party, where your colossal intelligence immediately sets you apart from the crowd. You then meet another guy who seems just as eager to make fun of everyone else who’s there. Both of you are unstoppable put-down machines. In conversations, he’s the kind of wit that enjoys telling people when they’re wrong, and what they don’t know. At the end of the party, you go “I like feeling superior to other people, you like feeling superior to other people, we should totally hang out.”

You friends keep telling you that he’s not quite as wonderful as you think he is, but you brush it off. In fact, you find that his type of patter is great fun to other parties when you’re making conversation. Then, a while later, you meet the guy again. The magic happens again, except that at the end of the night, he starts going on an incoherent rant about how global warming is all a sham, and he can solve it using twenty dollars worth of duct tape and plastic bags. As you slowly step away from your once-best-friend-forever, you start thinking: what happened?

What happened, indeed, is the main question after reading Superfreakonomics, the follow up to Levitt & Dubner’s massively successful 2005 pop-economics book. Their conceptual overreach, contrarian shtick and intellectual contradictions all reach an apex during a fifth chapter tackling Global Warming, and they only serve to highlight the problems with the authors’ two books so far.

After all, most of Freakonomics was based on telling people that what they knew about the world was incomplete, wrong and that even their axioms did not reflect reality as it happened. Posing themselves as cold-eyed intellectual tough-guys led by the dispassionate forces of rationality and economics, Levitt & Dubner deal in trivia, reinforced by a little bit of cynical shock value. Telling people, in the first book, that crime had seldom been so low appealed to hard numbers; telling them that the decline may have been caused by abortion (in reducing the number of disadvantaged children turning to crime) is the classic example of shock-pandering: Pro-life people simply dislike the assertion, while pro-choice activists find something here to reinforce their biases.

As the prototypical guy who loves to know more than anyone else, I fell for Freakonomics from beginning to end, spouting trivia (“Pools are more dangerous than guns!”) at the slightest opportunity. I even gave a copy as a gift before the mounting amount of scepticism made me calm down. What’s not so great about being a contrarian is that is often leads one to take opposite viewpoints “just because”, and that can become a dogma in itself. Superfreakonomics and its prequel don’t just cater to those people; it flatters them for their bad habits.

So it is that scepticism is the word of the day in reading Superfreakonomics. The good news, I suppose, is that most of the book is on the level of Freakonomics: Engaging writing, memorable examples, careful use of anecdote to illustrate larger microeconomic points, interesting research and an overarching tendency to link specific examples to a larger theory. We learn about drunk-walking, prostitution economics (using words such as “pimpact”), terrorist profiling, unintended consequences, and monkey prostitutes. (There’s a joke to make here about two pop-economic vulgarizers’ obsession with prostitution that I’ll leave to snarkier commentators.) Along the way, Levitt & Dubner take a crowbar to a number of cherished beliefs, including altruism, substandard doctors, the Kitty Genovese murder, the effectiveness of child seats and, oh yes, global warming. References at the back of the book chew up 36 pages (50 with the index), or about 13% of the book (18.5% with the index), which tells you something both about the reference trail and the ridiculous size of this overpriced $37 book.

The first four chapters try to establish a framework that tells us two things at once: First, that the world is complicated and that there are unintended consequences to everything we do. But at the same time, Levitt & Dubner also try to sell us the idea that some solutions are simple: Even as they show how difficult it is to get doctors to wash their hands (even today), they also tell us that hand-washing is a simple solution to fatal problems.

These two ideas are not mutually incompatible, but they don’t go well together (one could say that it’s a simple idea with complex consequences) and this tension is nowhere more obvious than in the much-criticized fifth chapter, which tackles global warming with an “aw, shucks, it’s not as bad as you think and it can be fixed easily anyway.” Surefire way to earn controversy and sales, this viewpoint nonetheless exposes the book to substantial criticism. I’m certainly not qualified to take on issues of large-scale climatology, but the contrarian in me can’t help but notice that most of Chapter 5 is based on a single biased source: a visit to Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures, a business that specializes in making money from ideas. Ideas about global warming, for instance. Ideas that the problem isn’t that bad (shock!) and can be solved with simple fixes (relief! –followed by check-writing). Superfreakonomics’ usually fast and far-reaching tone changes completely during this section, turning into a fawning profile of Intellectual Ventures that even had me wondering if they’d consider my résumé. I agree that Nathan Myhrvold is one of the coolest, smartest human beings on planet Earth… but I can’t help but flash back to the rest of the book and its insistence that altruism doesn’t exist, that well-meaning policies have unfortunate impacts and that the real world is, well, really complicated. When Superfreakonomics becomes similar to the kind of article that local papers write about con artists peddling their perpetual-motion machines, it’s time to put on the extra-sceptical goggles.

Too bad, really, because it’s a classic case of “you should have stopped talking earlier”: Levitt & Dubdner correctly identified global warming (or rather, Global Warming) as the sacrosanct issue of the time, the closest analogue to religious belief that their pool of potential readers may have. The impulse to apply their usual everything-you-know-is-wrong shtick must have been irresistible. Alas, it also carries consequences –such as turning readers against them. What’s the cost/benefit analysis of that scenario? Who wants to reward trolls?

On the other hand, overreach is a good antidote against uncritical belief about the rest of the book, which isn’t such a bad thing after all. Chapter 5 put aside, Superfreakonomics manages to recreate the electric huh-a-page reading experience of the original, which already isn’t too shabby. Readers may want, however, to wait a while until a “revised and expanded edition” comes out: not only will it fix errors in the main text (much as the original Freakonomics was corrected a year after release) and allow pundits to publish their debunking essays, but chances are that the paperback edition will be a better value for money than this unjustifiably overpriced hardcover. Savvy readers and freakonomists can probably agree on one thing: paying nearly $40 for an airy 220-pages main text makes no economic sense at all.

Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Morrow, 2005, 242 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-073132-X

As a reviewer, part of my mission is to single out worthy books that deserve your attention. There’s nothing better in this hobby than to discover an unjustly forgotten work and sing its praises in the hope to convince even just another reader to seek it out.

In the case of Freakonomics, though, it’s far too late to be celebrating anything: Published in early 2005, this book of practical sociology quickly became one of the best-selling books of the year, topping the charts even as I write this, even after finding a 24th hardcover printing copy at the local remainder bookstore. Critics ranted and raved, blogs embraced and dissected, readers bought and enjoyed: At this point, there doesn’t seem anything left to proclaim about Freakonomics, the book of choice for everyone who was looking for a brainy-but-not-too-much gift for Christmas 2005.

So much for trying to find a hidden gem. But what about celebrated gems? Knowing its massive runaway success, it’s difficult to read Freakonomics, without trying to identify what made the book such a hit. There’s the catchy title, there’s attractive green-apple-and-orange cover, there’s the short page count, there’s the enticing cover blurb by global best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell.

But there’s more. As the subtitle suggests, Freakonomics describes how “a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything.” The premise is simple: Apply the dismal science of economics to study how people behave. While sociologists have been doing this kind of social science thinking for a long time, Steven D. Levitt has the added distinction of being a certified economist. Is it possible to suppose that Americans, fascinated by the comforting certitude of numbers, would flock to a kinda-scientist if he promised to make sense of the world?

Maybe. But that kind of description severely belittles the sheer fun and impact of Freakonomics. The book doesn’t lose any time in announcing its colors. In the introduction alone, we’re told that legalized abortion lowers the crime rate; that real-estate agents demonstrably shirk their clients; that money doesn’t buy elections. Then Levitt promises to overturn conventional wisdom through hard numbers. In short, Levitt promises a better understanding of the world. Think of is as unlocking the inner working of society’s engines. Who could resist such a call? It’s like the intellectual appeal of The Da Vinci Code… for real.

Culled from Levit’s academic work (with, presumably, prosaic glue by Dubner), Freakonomics upsets a few bandwagons, teases fascinating results out of spreadsheets and does a fine job at applying the analytical tools of economics to real-life conclusions. The result is closer to sociology than economics, but who cares when you’re having so much fun?

And if Freakonomics has one particular distinction, it’s the sheer reading pleasure with which readers will tear through it. Dubner’s style is crystal-clear and Levitt’s conclusions are fascinating: It doesn’t take much more to blaze through this book without slowing down. The only thing to stop anyone, in fact, may be the desire to slow down and think about what’s just been written.

Because there is plenty of food for thought here. Among the book’s controversial assertions is the elegant deduction that the current slide in crime rate is partially due to legalized abortion: Disadvantaged people who would have committed crime starting from the early nineties were simply never born thanks to 1973’s Roe-vs-Wade decision. While the proof of such an argument is left to people curious enough to track down the references (Freakonomics is exquisitely well annotated), it’s certainly a decent conversation item at your next cocktail party. This shock-conclusion also announces Levitt’s twin interest in both parenting and crime. Levitt has spent a lot of time thinking about both, and Freakonomics spends most of its length studying the interactions between incentives, crime and parenting, teasing out conclusions that you will either find self-obvious or provocative.

Levitt concludes, for instance that pools are far more dangerous for children than keeping a gun at home. Similarly jolting conclusions are to be found throughout the book, whether it’s the revelation that teachers cheat, that seven million American “children” disappeared on April 15, 1987 and, perhaps more amusingly, that parenting doesn’t matter as much as you’d think in raising a child.

(I might as well explain that last one rather than tease you about it: Levitt, looking at the data, figures that who parent are is more important than the explicit steps they take in order to be good parents. Simply put, well-adjusted individuals are, almost by definition, more likely to be great parents than problem personalities trying to compensate through fancy educational programs and techniques. Good parents will have books in the house, for themselves, before the baby is born: they don’t rush out and buy a library for the kid in the hope that proximity to books will somehow increase their child’s IQ. It’s cause-and-effect all the way, baby.)

Freakonomics rates highly on the idea-per-page scale, with at least one provocative fact or one inspiring conclusion every few pages. Beyond just being good conversation fodder, this is a good that does present some sensible ideas about today’s society.

There’s a flip side to the book’s razzle-dazzle, though: For one thing, it’s very short at less than 250 loosely-packed pages. Even though the book contains both a great “Notes” section and a complete index, it often feels like an advertisement for more serious research. Readers with a greater craving for details, methodology and “proofs” will have to go digging in academia to be satisfied. There are also times where the authors make sweeping assertions and fail to connect them satisfactorily to their specific proof, leading me to think that any of the book’s fantabulous theories should be taken with a grain of salt. Finally, I wasn’t taken by the quotation of Dubner’s New York Times article about Levitt here and there between chapters: Why not reprint the article as an introduction and let the rest of the book expand on it?

But those disappointments seem minor compared to the intellectual charge that Freakonomics contains. Even hyped as it is, it’s well worth a read: Like most ideas-driven work, Levitt’s theories expand your mind in strange and pleasant directions. The last few years have seen a rise in this type of “let’s rethink the world” non-fiction (what with authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Friedman and others) and the result is a big cauldron of new ideas, counterintuitive theories and fresh approaches. Why not jump in and and see that’s brewing?