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am 8. November 2009
"But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?'" -- Acts 7:27

One of the earliest lessons of microeconomics has been credited to Pareto, based on his observation that 20 percent of the people have 80 percent of the wealth. Since then, we've learned that many other things are distributed in similarly lopsided fashion. If we focus on where there is little opportunity, we get little done. If we focus instead where there is great opportunity, the results may well be virtually unlimited. SuperFreakonomics, like Freakonomics before it, uses Pareto's perspective in a variety of areas where you probably don't normally think that unusual solutions at low cost might hold. The results can be enlightening and amusing, at the same time.

Here's a brief summary of the book:

Chapter 1: Economic inequality of women as exemplified by salary information with a lot of documentation of price elasticity and inelasticity in sex-worker employment.

Chapter 2: Using unusual patterns to locate terrorist intent on suicidal attacks. A shortened life expectation shifts behavior in ways that can be observed.

Chapter 3: People respond to incentives rather than to altruism. Measurements are challenged by newer measurements that take more factors into account.

Chapter 4: Seemingly possible inexpensive ways to solve difficult problems. Filled with more amusing speculation than substance.

Chapter 5: Curtailing carbon dioxide emissions won't cure global warming. The authors look at speculative ideas for changing the heat-trapping qualities of the atmosphere and oceans.

Epilogue: Monkeys can be trained to act like people with money.

If that mix of material seems a little random, the underlying theme is that microeconomic analysis can bring new insights, even where you wouldn't expect it to. Methinks the authors doth protest a little too much.

I could have done with a lot less information about prostitution. I don't really need to understand price elasticity in that area. This material felt a little like pandering to sell more books.

I enjoyed the terrorist chapter. If the book had been more like that, it would have been a lot more interesting.

The studies of motives seemed better suited to a book on social science research than to a popular book.

In the inexpensive solutions, I thought that the authors were reaching to be entertaining more than they were trying to inform.

In the global warming section, the points about carbon dioxide compared to water favor and methane are accurate and well presented. But the authors went off the deep end in pursuing alternatives. These suggestions are more in the realm of speculation than proven alternatives.

Will the book harm you? Probably not.

Will the book give you a great big insight that will reward you for reading it? Maybe not.

Will the book give you lots to talk with other people? Sure.

I hope the authors will attempt to be more solution oriented in future books and less driven by a desire to be "entertaining."
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