Book Review: Super Freakonomics

Super Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

This is neither as bad a book as the cover promises nor as good (or as clever) a book as the authors believe it is.  The book is highly entertaining, but the worldview failures of the author spoil a major opportunity to dig deeper into the implications of rational (and irrational) choice theory.  In fact, unintentionally, the book itself confirms a lot of theistic perspectives about virtue including the following:  supervision is necessary for moral behavior, behavioral change is an extremely difficult task that often takes generations, many humanly devised laws defending ‘virtue’ fail because they target the suppliers rather than the customers as well, and living based on our physical appetites makes us no better than capuchin monkeys.  None of this would be a surprise to a genuine theist, but the authors of the book seem to be surprised by these phenomena, or at least unable to explain these results in a coherent way.

If you are reading this book, it is best to read it for its provocation value, because it is written in a rather glib and superficial manner that is humorous and clearly designed to shock.  The authors, for example, note that prostitutes are paid well because of the illegality of their actions (not a surprise) and also note that people in lab experiments only behave altruistically because they are under supervision (again, not a surprise).  As human beings we are a mixture between good and evil (again, not a surprise), and this book by and large steers in that messy middle ground between angels and the gutter (though a couple of chapters, including the one on sex and food-obsessed monkeys and on prostitutes, clearly aim for the gutter).

The book as a whole is also lacking in a sense of coherent theme, except that its desire is deliberately obscure and deliberately counterintuitive.  It is an effective exercise in demonstrating the ‘economic approach’ of relying on data rather than intuition, so if you are expecting a sound intuitive grasp of solutions you will mostly be disappointed (except in the chapter on ways to geoengineer climate change).  By and large this book is an ode to those who are data collectors trudging in unpopular or seedy areas of the field of microeconomics.  It’s a very good book if you like that sort of thing–and I have a higher tolerance for such areas than most.

If you are concerned about the state of American society, this book gives a lot of room for pause.  For one, it shows a key element in the failure of anti-prostitution law enforcement is the corruption of police officers through free sex acts from prostitutes (in three red-light districts in Chicago, roughly 3% of all tricks from prostitutes are freebies to police officers).  Given this same likelihood of police corruption in the drug war, and one understands that the moral corruption of police and law enforcement is a key element in societal moral decline.  And that’s both the moralist and the data collector in me talking.

So, in short, if you like a brisk, slightly over 200 page collection of dryly amusing (if rather superficial) accounts of microeconomists in strange and unusual beats with a minimal amount of thematic cohesion (except a focus on “sexy” subjects like terrorism and sex and climate change) sounds like your kind of book, you will probably like this book.  What I found most interesting is how easy it was to peg terrorists:  Muslim first and last names, owned a mobile phone, were students, rented rather than owned homes, very unlikely to have a savings account, withdraw money from an ATM on Friday afternoon, and buy life insurance, along with one other secret behavioral pattern that is very intense among terrorists.  This would suggest that being a terrorist is strongly negatively correlated with a long-term future oriented worldview, and that the short-term worldview is exposed through behavior.  We are more transparent than we would like to believe, especially if we are covering our tracks.  That’s a useful lesson for all of us.  Unfortunately, those looking for deeper insights from this book will have to draw most of those intuitive connections themselves–the book itself is largely devoted to superficial observations.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to Book Review: Super Freakonomics

  1. Pingback: Audiobook Review: The Undercover Economist Strikes Back | Edge Induced Cohesion

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