The Scientific Fundamentalist

A look at the hard truths about human nature.

Superfreak, Yes; Onomics, No

Why Superfreakonomics is not as good as Freakonomics

I was a big fan of Freakonomics, but I was disappointed by its sequel, Superfreakonomics.

I consider Steven D. Levitt to be one of the greatest economists of all time.  With the possible exception of Dan Ariely, no one can design and conduct truly mind-bogglingly creative and ingenious studies to uncover the truths like Levitt can.  That is why Freakonomics was such a delight to read.  The book was mostly based on many of the empirical studies that Levitt himself had conducted over the years, and explained them for the general, noneconomist audience.

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When I heard that there was going to be a sequel to Freakonomics, I was very excited, because I thought there was going to be another book just as good as Freakonomics.  So I eagerly read Superfreakonomics just as soon as it came out in paperback.  (I don’t read books in hardcover.)  But Superfreakonomics was a super disappointment.

In retrospect, I should have known that Superfreakonomics, published only four years after Freakonomics, could not possibly be as good.  Even a true genius like Levitt could not conduct enough mind-bogglingly creative studies in four years to fill another (albeit very short) book.  As a result, Levitt’s work comprises a much smaller portion of Superfreakonomics than of Freakonomics.  And, as a consequence, Levitt and Dubner had to discuss other people’s work in other fields in order to fill the pages.  And these other fields include evolutionary psychology.

Yes, Superfreakonomics was a disappointment, partly because it has some evolutionary psychology in it.

For example, one of the questions they ask in Chapter 1 (in the table of contents) is “Do men love money the way women love kids?”  Of course, they do!  That’s what I have been saying all along.  (See “Women have better things to do than make money Part I, Part II, Part III.)  But that’s evolutionary psychology, not neoclassical economics, at which Levitt excels.

As I argue elsewhere, microeconomics explains the behavior of the singular and unitary actor.  It’s not about men and women; in fact, there are no men and women in microeconomics.  There are only (singular and unitary) actors.  In the words of Levitt and Dubner themselves, “If, for instance, you added up all the women and men on the planet, you would find that, on average, the typical adult human being has one breast and one testicle—and yet how many people fit that description?”  Microeconomics is about how the actor with one breast and one testicle behaves.  Evolutionary psychology is about how women with two breasts are completely, fundamentally, and irreconcilably different from men with two testicles, because, in large part, women have breasts and men have testicles.  It’s the breasts and testicles that make them behave differently.

The only part of Superfreakonomics that is even remotely reminiscent of the beauty of Freakonomics is Chapter 1, where Levitt and Dubner talk about prostitution.  They point out that, a hundred years ago, prostitutes charged much more for their services than their contemporary counterparts do today, and, as a result, they made much more money.  In today’s dollar, prostitutes then made anywhere from $25,000/year if they were low end, to $76,000/year if they were average, to $430,000/year if they were high end.

This is because prostitutes back then provided services that no one else could. If men wanted to have sex without getting married, they had to resort to prostitutes. Good girls back then simply didn’t, so prostitutes were the only ones with whom men could have premarital or extramarital sex. Following the law of supply and demand, they were therefore able to charge a lot of money for their exclusive services in short supply.

All of that changed with the sexual revolution of 1960s and 1970s.  Now everybody did, even good girls, so prostitutes lost their comparative advantage in providing sex.  That’s why they can no longer charge a lot of money for services which men can get from their casual girlfriends, classmates, colleagues, and strangers in bars.  (Hence the quip “Men don’t pay prostitutes to have sex; they pay them to leave” because leaving right after sex is now the rare commodity that other women cannot provide.)

This is pure economics.  Unfortunately, the rest of the book is not about economics.  It’s mostly a collection of long interviews with mildly interesting people about what they do, be it catching Muslim terrorists in the UK or fighting global warming or what really happened to Kitty Genovese.  Their stories are not necessarily uninteresting or uninformative, but it’s not economics.  If we want interviews, we go to Larry King or Chelsea Handler, not Steve Levitt.

Even in their first chapter on prostitution, Levitt and Dubner stretch too far.  In the subtitle of the book, they refer to “patriotic prostitutes.”  In the chapter title, they ask “Why is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?”  This refers to the fact that Washington Park in Chicago hosts a lot of family reunions around the Fourth of July, and some of the men who congregate in Washington Park for their family reunions later consort with prostitutes.  As a result, many women who have other jobs during the year become prostitutes around the Fourth of July to meet the greater demand for their services around this holiday.  Hence the “patriotic prostitutes.”

But they are not exactly like department-store Santas.  There are no department-store Santas who work all year around; all of them have other jobs (or retirement) during the year, and they all work only during the Christmas holiday season.  In contrast, there are many prostitutes who work as prostitutes throughout the year and have no other jobs.  So only some prostitutes (probably a very small minority) are like department-store Santas.

Their logic sometimes fails as well.  In a later chapter, Levitt and Dubner discuss why it is so hard to convince doctors to wash their hands constantly so as not to infect their patients with viruses and germs from another patient.  They note:  “When a doctor fails to wash his hands, his own life isn’t the one that is primarily endangered.  It is the next patient he treats, the one with the open wound or the compromised immune system.”  But if this is true, then why would a doctor treat any patient at all?  The life that a doctor endangers by not treating, or by giving a wrong diagnosis, or by operating on a patient drunk, is not his own.  So why do doctors ever bother to cure patients by giving them the correct diagnosis?  Why do doctors ever bother to stay sober before an operation?

I can certainly understand the demand of the marketplace or the lure of writing another international bestseller like Freakonomics. But Superfeakonomics was simply too rushed. It would have been a much better book, a sequel as good as the original, had Steven D. Levitt waited five more years to conduct more original, mind-bogglingly clever studies that only he can conduct, and then only talk about his own work in the sequel.

 

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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