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44-Jan-Feb-2010
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Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance

A-Superfreakonomics"Rogue" economist Steven D. Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and Stephen J. Dubner, a former editor at the New York Times Magazine, coauthored the best seller Freakonomics ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2005). SuperFreakonomics, another exploration of the intersection of classical economics and human behavior, is the sequel.

The Topic: In Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner forged surprising connections, such as that between the legalization of abortion and, two decades later, a reduced crime rate. SuperFreakonomics, which opens with a comparison of the economics of prostitution and the real estate industry, takes their provocative deconstructions to a new, edgier level. The authors explore patterns of would-be terrorists and their financial habits, the link between feminism and education, the relative merits of children's car seats, the connection between sex changes and salary levels, and the use of geoengineering to prevent climate change--all with surprising results. Above all, Levitt and Dubner examine how people respond to incentives--and remain unable to understand life in fundamental economic terms.
William Morrow. 288 pages. $29.99. ISBN: 9780060889579

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[The] Steves wryly, humorously and almost sadistically remind us that we are slaves to our own failures to parse situations into basic economic components. ... Super Freakonomics also tiptoes around important public policy debates such as healthcare and doesn't dare venture into any sort of policy prescriptions using the political vernacular of the day." Gregory D. Hess

Independent (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"It doesn't quite scale the controversial heights of their first effort, which alleged that the cause of the fall in the crime rate in the 1990s was legalised abortion in the 1970s, which meant the embryonic criminals from the underclass just weren't being born. This time, the authors debunk climate change (but they're not the first to have a go at that) and their big idea, a hosepipe pumping liquefied sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, is perhaps just a little too freaky even for these intellectual venturers." Sean O'Grady

Times (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"This section [about geoengineering] is likely to generate the most controversy, just as the research about abortions did for the previous book. ... As with its predecessor, the book's flaws are outweighed by the sheer density of interesting ideas." Tom Standage

Telegraph (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"The main problem, however, is no fault of Levitt and Dubner's. Just like prostitutes and sumo wrestlers, economists and authors respond to incentives--and the success of Freakonomics has led them to pounce on any interesting research that's going." Robert Colvile

Critical Summary

As in Freakonomics, Dubner and Levitt consider how individual incentives influence strategic behavior and how, in turn, market behavior and changes in policy and culture help us to better understand incentives. Critics, however, diverged on the success of this follow-up while admitting the authors' wisdom, wit, and insight. Although the more diverse set of examples certainly fascinates, they can feel "like more of a rag-bag of conclusions" than a cohesive argument (Times). But what perplexed reviewers most was the last section, an analysis of externalities that examines the use of geoengineering to prevent climate change and provides fodder for climate-change deniers. Right or wrong, the use of geoengineering to prevent climate change seems a real stretch far beyond Levitt's economic expertise. Yet despite its flaws, SuperFreakonomics is as fun as, if even more controversial than, its predecessor.