One of the unintended consequences of my decision to take 20+ credits of exclusively economics and math courses this semester was a huge deficit in class reading materials, and, simultaneously, a complete depletion of free time in which I could pursue my own reading interests. I feel that it is only appropriate, then, that I write my first book review/recommendation of this semester about a book that explores this law of unintended consequences in our everyday lives: “SUPERFREAKONOMICS.”
Just like “Freakonomics,” the book is divided up into small chapters with semi-coherent themes. Each chapter articulates some larger observation about human behavior through a presentation of different stories, anecdotes, and research results. Without giving away too much, here are some of the more novel questions and observations that the authors present:
- One chapter is titled “How Is A Street Prostitute Like A Department-Store Santa?”
- It is more dangerous to walk drunk than it is to drive drunk. (I think there’s a huge hole in the logic the authors use to reach this conclusion, but I’ll let you read and decide for yourself).
- Chemotherapy is highly ineffective from a cost-benefit point of view.
- There is a positive correlation between the introduction of television in the United States and crime rates.
- Big floaty inner tubes in the Atlantic Ocean could significantly reduce the damage done by Hurricanes each year in the U.S.
- Monkey prostitution has been recorded in lab experiments.
These are just some random excerpts that I found interesting- hopefully they’ve either whetted your intellectual appetite or at least produced a few “huh?’s.”
I also enjoyed the fact that Levitt/Dubner made an effort to justify their unifying theme at the beginning of the book, especially since this is a popular book read by many laymen and non-economists. In ”An Explanatory Note,” they lay out the unifying theme of both of their books:
People respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable or manifest. Therefore, one of the most powerful laws in the universe is the law of unintended consequences. This applies to schoolteachers and Realtors and crack dealers as well as expectant mothers, sumo wrestlers, bagel salesmen, and the Ku Klux Klan.
Their choice to include Gary Becker’s explanation of the “economic approach” was also laudable. From the first chapter:
In his Nobel address, Becker suggested that the economic approach is not a subject matter, nor is it a mathematical means of explaining “the economy.” Rather, it is a decision to examine the world a bit differently. It is a systematic means of describing how people make decisions and how they change their minds; how they chose someone to love and marry, someone perhaps to hate and even kill; whether, coming upon a pile of money, they will steal from it, leave it alone, or even add to it; why they may fear one thing and yearn for something only slightly different; why they’ll punish one sort of behavior while rewarding a similar one.
These paragraphs go a long way in both establishing a unifying theme for the book and also explaining the methodology and purpose of economics to people who think that economics is just about understanding things like money, inflation, and unemployment.
So overall, it’s a great book, and I’d highly recommend it is a holiday gift. It’s a true page turner, and fast readers should be able to get through the entire thing in less than six or seven hours.
With that being said, though, I don’t think the book ultimately lives up to its title. The original “Freakonomics” was so popular because of the novelty of the method of analysis (economic analysis applied to ostensibly non-market situations). Good introduction aside, this book fails to bring anything new to the table in that regard. While highly enjoyable and entertaining, it is just an extension of the first book.
One final warning: for some reason this book is not rated “R” on the cover, though it certainly should be. The analysis of prostitution at the beginning of the book is, well, very detail-oriented. I would not recommend getting this book to anyone under seventeen or eighteen years old, unless you’re interested in getting into awkward conversations with younger siblings about why certain types of intercourse have higher prices on different days of the week.