Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

The follow up to this, but with an even more annoying title.  Luckily it's still a great read, with lots of myths busted, patterns teased out and sacred cows turned into burgers.

For instance: pimps generally do a good job.  Prostitutes who use them on average make more money per week and are safer than those on the street alone.  In fact, the figures suggest they do a better job than US estate agents.  I also learned working girls have different tariffs depending on the colour of the client's skin.  I knew it!  See, this is why God wants me to punish them.

There's a fascinating section on altruism, kicking off with the Kitty Genovese murder - a famous case in New York which 38 people apparently witnessed and did nothing to stop (also where Rorscharch got his mask, Watchmen fans.)  The authors then look at the history of economists' games like Dictator, which suggested that people were a lot kinder than thousands of years of history and common sense would've lead us to believe.  The lessons learned from both these stories are pretty amazing.

The book also has a nice bit of controversy - anthropogenic global warming.  It looks at the issues from an economist's point of view and compares it to the manure problem of the early 20th century, which was solved by the invention of the internal combustion engine.  Several potentially easy fixes are suggested, often to do with pumping sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, but the authors question whether fixing it as an engineering problem is the real goal of Al Gore et al.

The main lessons in this book are the same as in the first one, but no less salient for that.  People respond to incentives, but not always in ways which are easily predictable.  And, perhaps more importantly, never take the pronouncements of vested interests at face value, whether they're from politicians, the media, or filthy lying whores.

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