Superfreakonomics: A Review.

Marcus's picture
Submitted by Marcus on Sat, 2011-02-05 00:50

In the introduction to Superfreakonomics the authors Dubner and Levitt admit to having lied twice in their first book, 'Freakonomics’. Once when they claimed that they had no unifying theme. In fact they cleverly sneaked it into the subtitle, a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything. Their second lie was that they could not in fact explore everything.

This type of banal pedantry masquerading as humour would make any non-academic weep. However, it does make a serious point too.

The authors are saying to the reader, ‘we discuss awkward subjects. We are not afraid to be revealing, even about ourselves.’
Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics are books designed to provoke discussion about controversial topics without being partisan about it. They are not afraid to analyze topics from abortion to the Klu Klux Klan by simply applying economic principles to statistical data.

For example, in Freakonomics, Dubner and Levitt conclude that the lifting of restrictions on abortion in the US in the 1970’s, led to a decrease in crime-rate in the 1990’s. Their conclusion implies that unwanted children from poor backgrounds tended to become criminals. Policing methods had indeed little or no effect on crime levels, despite what progressive politicians like Bill Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani would have us believe. It was aborting unwanted pregnancies that did the trick.

Frustratingly though, when making such bold claims the two authors stop themselves short from making any moral judgements.

Take the chapter in Superfreakonomics on global warming, provocatively called ‘What do Al Gore and Mt Pinatubo have in common?’

The answer is that both offer a solution to global warming. Al Gore through his cap and trade scheme and Mt Pinatubo by demonstrating the cooling effect of sulphur dioxide thrown up into the stratosphere. The second, say the authors, is the principle behind a much cheaper geo-engineering solution than Al Gore’s cap and trade.

Rather than make a judgement on the validity of man-made Global Warming science though, they instead defer to a panel of ‘genius’ experts. These so-called genius’s are trying to ‘sell’ their global warming solutions to the government through a private company, called IV, founded by the scientist Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft.

At this point the authors seem to have departed from their original premise. They are not even exploring the data anymore to discover the hidden side of the issue, but are merely collecting opinions. This is a pattern that repeats itself in many of the chapters of the book. Nevertheless, they do not shy away from antagonizing the mainstream on global warming.

We are told that Myrhold employs a physicist by the name of Lowell Wood, whom he describes as one of the “smartest men in the universe”.

“Wood says that the climate models are “enormously crude... Everybody turns their knobs so they aren’t the outlier, because the outlying model is going to have difficulty getting funded."

“The emphasis on carbon dioxide is “misplaced, because carbon dioxide is not the major greenhouse gas." The major greenhouse gas is water vapour [and current climate models] do not know how to handle water vapour and various types of clouds.

“But what most people don’t know, the IV scientists say, is that the carbon dioxide level some 80 million years ago – back when our mammalian ancestors were evolving – was at least 1000 parts per million [today 380]. In fact, that is the concentration of carbon dioxide you regularly breathe if you work in a new energy efficient office building, for that is the level established by the engineering group that sets standards for heating and ventilation systems. So not only is carbon dioxide not poisonous, but changes in carbon-dioxide levels don’t necessarily mirror human activity. Nor does atmospheric carbon dioxide necessarily warm the earth: ice-cap evidence shows that over the past several thousand years, carbon dioxide levels have risen after a rise in temperature, not the other way round...Then there’s this little discussed fact about global warming: while the drumbeat of gloom has grown louder over the past several years, the average global temperature during that time has in fact decreased.”

Myrhold himself begins describing his geo-engineering solutions with the sentence, “If you believe there’s a problem worth solving...”

However, this sitting on-the-fence position by the authors is not necessarily the most frustrating part of the book. Repetitive too is the sentiment that the authors believe economists are selfish individuals who are devoid of emotion. This could be just tongue-in-check banter on their part, akin to the general tone of the wise-cracking ‘two lies’ admission, because they reveal later in a chapter called ‘unbelievable stories about apathy and altruism’ that they do know better.

From the beginning of the chapter, an assumption is noted that ‘altruism’ is a good, whose validity is has never been questioned. Apparently for decades game-theory economists have been touting the theory that human beings and animals are inherently altruistic. Levitt and Dubner proceed to overturn this conclusion and argue for the idea that human decisions are motivated by many different factors, and are not necessarily what they regard as altruism. Although they don’t specifically define it as such, what they regard as altruism is selfless and duty bound.

This brings them to a conclusion, which they reveal, is also the unifying theme of both books.

That is, people respond to incentives.

What they are basically saying is that no action can be divorced from a directed thought process. To expect that altruism is without motivation is just wishful thinking on the part of what Ayn Rand would call, the ‘mystics of mind and muscle’.

In this you get the feeling that Levitt and Dubner are stumbling towards a conclusion they do not state: that self-interest and reason trumps self-sacrifice and altruism. It’s a shame that they didn’t quite get there, because the final chapter, ‘the fix is in, it’s cheap and simple’, is a rallying cry for small government.

In this chapter, the authors describe how throughout history ‘cheap and simple’ solutions to big problems have been more effective than ‘big and expensive projects’ favoured by Governments.

To illustrate this they point out that the rate of death from heart disease has fallen dramatically over the past decade, not from new costly surgical procedures, but from relatively cheap drugs like aspirin, heparin, ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers.

That a researcher in the Ford motor company saved more lives from traffic accidents through the invention of the seat-belt than police officers and speed-limits did. And how cheap a Polio vaccine is compared to the astronomical cost of an iron-lung for every Polio sufferer, the cost of which according to the authors, was set to bankrupt the US at the beginning of the twentieth century.

They conclude:

“Alas, governments aren’t exactly famous for cheap or simple solutions; they tend to prefer the costly-and-cumbersome route. Note that none of the examples in this chapter were the brainchild of a government official.”

Unfortunately Levitt and Dubner tend not to prefer to draw moral judgments from their evidence either.

However, there is a solution to their problem that is both cheap and cost-effective to attain.

The books of Ayn Rand.

( categories: )

"I read only a couple chapters before putting it down..."

Marcus's picture

Yep, Super was a bit of a let down.

Strangely enough it was the inverse of Freakonomics. That book started strongly and then lost a bit of steam. Even if you found faults with their arguments, it was quite an interesting and provocative read.

Superfreakonomics, on the other hand, is quite boring until the second half. I think I skipped ahead to GW chapter and then went back again.

The authors also made a big song and dance about how they only wrote a sequel when they had enough material. However the book does give the impression that they were scrapping the bottom of the barrel, covering the same old ground.

Even then the final part is more a collection of interesting essays with an economic bent than anything to do with the concept of "freakonomics".

If they come out with a third book, they will have to come up with something more original and engaging if they want to sell more books. Being economists, they should know this.

However, this will probably turn out to be a long-running series that is done to death based on the strength of their first book.

Thanks for the review. It

Aaron's picture

Thanks for the review. It sounds like Levitt and Dubner are up to more of the same. I liked 'Freakonomics' in the general sense of it introducing 'incentives matter' to a popular audience - but not for its actual content, which was generally poorly done.

Along with lesser problems, Freakonomics did a terrible job handling the facts concerning the abortion/crime correlation. When reading it I remember excitedly thinking they would show crime dropping in lower age groups first, then older ones, etc. on up - an obvious result if the drop in crime was due to likely-criminals being aborted at a higher starting years earlier. They did not show this. They appeared to not even think of it. And, in fact, the data do not show this - effectively destroying any claim that the crime drop was due to increased abortion. It's not just that they were pussy about making moral conclusions; they were terribly shoddy about the actual facts and needlessly setup up an easy target for anti-abortionists.

Yet I couldn't resist. I bought Superfreakonomics when it came out. I read only a couple chapters in before putting it down in disgust, when they again overlooked obvious facts to look for concerning prostitution, and ended up with muddled and contradictory ideas on it. I never made it as far as the global warming portion. It does not surprise me to hear that Levitt and Dubner don't take a strong stand, and waffle between 'global warming is not real' and 'GW is real, but should be addressed by geoengineering'. What would surprise me is if a deeper look at their research didn't also uncover gaping holes or wrong facts in even getting to where they did.

I still like that they can get a popular audience thinking about economics, incentives, etc., yet cringe at how badly they actually do it. Steven Landsburg and David Friedman have much less muddled and better factually supported (but not quite as popularly accessible) books along these lines too, which I would readily recommend instead to anyone considering (Super)Freakonomics.


Blake's picture

Thanks for the review. I have not read the book, though.

I wonder if their reluctancy in discussing moral perspectives is deliberate or not. Either they didn't think it would sell, or in approaching the issues more pragmatically, they did not make the connection.

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