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SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt‎ and ‎Stephen Dubner

SuperFreakonomics is a book by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner which serves as a follow-up to their previous work, Freakonomics. Their second work is built mostly around the premise of providing real-life examples of economic principles in a convincing and accessible manner. However, unlike the first work, which took advantage of statistical analysis and tied the results to specific concepts such as price determination theory, SuperFreakonomics takes a more encompassing approach. The majority of cases incorporated and examined in the book confirm the general and well-established economic principles such as market coverage, supply and demand, and the free market. The authors back their claims by drawing parallels between the services provided by real estate agents and pimps from the perspective of added value, patterns observed between seemingly unrelated factors such as ages of athletes and the behavior of terrorists, and the analysis of risks for drunk individuals. It is worth noting that the book uses more anecdotal evidence and less statistically significant data than is acceptable by the academic standards, which can be partially explained by the simplified premise and broader scope of the work.

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One of the most interesting issues brought up by the authors is the claim that it is safer for a drunk person to walk than to drive (Levitt and Dubner 6). Aside from its usefulness as a health recommendation, the obvious strong point is the counterintuitive nature of the claim. To back it up, the authors conduct a statistical analysis of the fatality rates among pedestrians and drunk drivers and provide a convincing result – the likelihood of dying while walking drunk is eight times greater than the likelihood of fatal car accidents caused by excessive alcohol consumption. However, what draws my attention to this issue is the selective approach to evidence chosen by the authors. While the analysis is seemingly transparent and appropriate, several important variables are missing from the equation. For instance, the conclusion drawn by the authors is only valid under the condition that the individuals in question walk approximately the same distance as they cover while driving. Since the factor was unaddressed in the chapter, we can safely conclude that in this example the authors chose to simplify the analysis to incorporate dramatic evidence into their work. As can be seen, the issue, in this case, is not related to the conclusions reached by the authors, but rather to the methods chosen to strengthen the fascination of the reader.

A similar approach is observed in the chapter that deals with the principles behind the costs of prostitutes’ services. The authors discuss the issue at length to conclude that the drop in inflation-adjusted prices of these services is determined largely by advances in the field of healthcare, such as lower risks of unintended pregnancy (Levitt and Dubner 19). While such conclusions can be used to illustrate the basic theory of supply and demand (women are not repelled by the risks and enter the “market” more freely), there is no reason to expect any other outcome, and, therefore, no reason to conduct such elaborate analysis in the first place. Besides, the book uses just two individuals – LaSheena and Allie – to back the claim, with self-reported revenues serving as primary evidence. Thus, the authors use an inadequately small sample, make no attempts to establish the validity of the study, and do not try to evaluate alternative explanations. It can be argued that there is no need for such elaborate verification since the conclusions are relatively solid, but such assertion leads us to the other problem – there is equally little value in the reached conclusions. Simply put, the oversimplification, in this case, creates an illustration of inappropriate analysis.

The only issue that can be justified from the economic standpoint is the assessment of the financial viability of the current attempts to minimize global warming. Instead of following the currently preferred route of establishing regulations that limit the emission of carbon dioxide, the authors explore an alternative approach developed by Nathan Myhrvold who developed a potential countermeasure of infusing the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide (Levitt and Dubner 182). The action is expected to replicate the cooling effect produced as a result of volcanic eruptions and has a significant cost advantage – it is incredibly cheap and does not create restrictions that adversely impact businesses. While the basic conclusion is aligned well with the book’s central premise of finding the most economically beneficial solution, a deeper inquiry provokes several important questions. Most prominently, it is unclear why the comparison of advantages ends with the direct cost of the operation and does not include a multitude of other factors, such as the risk assessment of possible unintended consequences. The most likely answer, again, is the desire to search for fitting rather than objectively viable solutions.

In conclusion, SuperFreakonomics follows the basic premise of its predecessor, but in pursuit of engaging theme it sacrifices integrity and, as a result, is far less valuable as a source of knowledge. It still can be used as an entertaining introduction to economic theory, but will not be particularly enlightening to anyone above the basic level. Also, it should be approached with caution due to many methodological flaws and logical leaps.

Work Cited

Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Insurance. Harper Collins, 2009.

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