Sunday, October 18, 2009

Review: Superfreakonomics – Levitt & Dubner

In Chapter 1 we read a prurient but entertaining account of Chicago prostitution. We learn the benefits of having a pimp, the relative cost of different sexual services and why the police go easy on the ladies (this last explanation is unconvincing). Then we move to the high-end ‘escort’ market and consider the case study of “Allie”.

Economic concepts: commodity good, price discrimination, inelastic demand, principal-agent problem. Plus a “how-to” guide on being a successful courtesan.

Chapter 2 is organised around the concepts of data mining. We learn about the financial transaction profiles of Islamic terrorists, the disutility of hospitals and the relative performance of doctors in dealing with different kinds of illness and injuries.

Economic concepts: data analysis.

Chapter 3 is about altruism. The core of this chapter deconstructs a 1964 murder in New York City which was apparently witnessed by many people, none of whom intervened or even reported it to the police. This leads to an appraisal of economics experiments which purportedly showed people to possess an intrinsic core of altruism (leading to Nobel prizes in economics for the researchers). Such an appealing conclusion is debunked as you might expect. The murder story is also debunked.

Economic concepts: limitations of behavioural economics.

Chapter 4 is about perverse incentives and specifically how powerful interest groups succeed in bringing about outcomes which disadvantage society overall. In the sights are doctors and auto makers. It is shown repeatedly that the hero who correctly points out that the emperor has no clothes is subsequently uniformly reviled by said interest groups

Chapter 5 is the part about global warming. Or is it cooling? Or is it something which just happens anyway? A long piece centred around Nathan Myhrvold’s company Intellectual Ventures shows that assuming global warming is actually the problem fashionable opinion claims, there exist a number of technological solutions which for a modest amount of cash would deal with it. Alas, such ideas are anathema to Green lobbies.

In the epilogue, we learn that economic concepts of monetary value and exchange can also be taught (and internalised by) capuchin monkeys. I was not entirely clear why we were being told this apart from the monkey prostitution link back to Chapter 1.

I am torn two ways about this book. In its favour it makes intelligent points about a number of topical issues, it correctly undermines various shibboleths of political correctness, and it’s compulsively readable – I was able to finish the 216 pages in a day.

On the other hand, the sycophantic writing style is gratingly folksy-humorous. Subtle flattery throughout confirms the authors and reader as equal partners, intellectually superior to the idiots the book so delights in debunking. The book is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

So if you are looking for an upmarket Reader’s Digest type book which will confirm you are an important mover and shaker, that you are fashionably dismissive of political correctness to an acceptable degree, and that won’t force you to engage with any difficult concepts, I guess this book is for you. Otherwise get it from the library or read the Sunday Times serialisation.