Superfreakonomics (2009) by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner is a sequel to their 2005 Freakonomics book which was a best seller. I’ve read the first book and thought it was good and thought I’d have a look at their sequel. It’s a very impressive sequel, it is as good as the original a feat that very few best-selling authors manage. That said, it’s not perfect. It provides some very well outlined interesting ideas that show how economic thought can be applied to various situations.
The first chapter is on prostitution and looks at how prostitutes are responding rationally to demand. It makes points about how pimps can help and how the great competitor to prostitution and what has seen a greater reduction in prostitution than ever before is women’s liberation and the appearance of sexual relations outside marriage.
The second chapter looks at suicide bombers and how their education levels are really. It also points out just how effective terrorism can be. They end this chapter with a speculative look at how data mining could find suicide bombers.
In chapter 3 they look at altruism and the story of Kitty Gevovese. This amazing story was about how 38 people were meant to have seen a woman get murdered outside their apartment block but none took action. The chapter also looks at how behavioral economics really works and the bias that is introduced in these experiments. It’s a very interesting section that shows the limitations of this kind of economics. They also intersperse this chapter with facts on disease and medicine and how these systems can be organised.
Chapter 4 is the controversial chapter on Global Warming. Here they accuse many environmentalists of acting like religious zealots rather than reasonable human beings. The response of such environmentalists to this chapter was wonderfully ironic in that they acted like religious zealots, condemned the book and the writer and gave the book invaluable free publicity. The chapter is damaging to people who think that cutting C02 emissions is vital. They got the Carnegie institute climate modeller Ken Caldeira’s views about geo-engineering AND then got him to read the chapter and approve it which he did. Then when the Green inquisition formed to condemn the book Caldeira did recant, but his honesty and his approval beforehand had undermined the zealots case. The chapter actually centres around Nathan Myhrvold and his company IV ventures and a number of other very smart people who believe that global warming is happening, that humans have contributed, C02 is significant contributer, but that cutting C02 output is the wrong way to go to enhance humanity’s welfare. The solution proposed of sulphur emissions may well be worth trying. It may be more speculative than the book presents however.
Chapter 5 is a fine shorter chapter on how monkeys can quickly grasp economics and trade currency for treats and then trade it with each other for other things. They also quickly learn about other qualities of property. It’s a fun way to end a fine book.
The book is well worth a read. It may offend some people with Green sensibilities but even quite a few such people, including Tim Harford of More or Less and The Undercover Economist have read the book and liked it a great deal. For people who are interested in economics and the world in general it’s a fine, pleasantly short and crisp read.