Superfreakonomics: The Final Review

I had intended to review Superfreakonomics chapter by chapter but only managed Five, One and Two. Chapter 3 was perhaps the most satisfying of the book dealing with John List’s research on altruism (or that lack of it). It is a bit triumphant but otherwise informative. Chapter 4, in contrast, with pithy and unsatisfying. It was a prelude to Chapter 5 (on global warming) and dealt with how often there are simple solutions so long as you are willing to look for them. They again talk lots about hand washing and they also introduce a plan to rid the US (at least) of category 5 hurricanes. All interesting but it didn’t seem much like economics to me. The book ends by moving to the truly freaky: monkeys are rational economic actors too describing the experiments of Yale’s Keith Chen who managed to introduce currency and prostitution into the monkey economy. Ironically, Levitt and Dubner appear to be saying that for the environment prices don’t matter although for monkeys they’ll do lots in response to small price changes. This highlights what essentially is a lack of a theme throughout the book.

The theme for the book should have been: it is good to look dispassionately at data. And there are ripples at this. But it is obscured by continual digs at government, non-economists and, of course, climate science. Perhaps to be entertaining, it just went too far off message and so the message was lost. Moreover, that entertainment aspect doesn’t look like it is going to translate into book sales. If you are college-aged are you really going to give a book with ‘global cooling’ and ‘prostitution’ in the subtitle to your friends? Last time around it was the rouge economist and that has a certain appeal with its questioning of the unintended side effects of monetary incentives (after all, the Sumo wrestlers cheated because of the gambling). This time around it is more the stereo-typical Chicago-style economist where it is government action that is potentially the evil. And for a book that doubts altruism, hard to say if that says ‘gift me’ this year.