Thursday, November 05, 2009

Super(?)freakonomics, with Big and Little "F"

I read Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's sequel to their book Freakonomics, namely, Superfreakonomics. If I had to describe it in one word, I would say "smug." If given two words, I'd say "not funny."

At times the book is a fascinating collection of recent research. But too often, the book feels like contrarianism for its own (or for coolness', or for conservatism's) sake.

My beefs:
Several times, they talk about how, by solving one problem, we managed to create another problem. (Ireland raised the garbage bill, so people burnt their trash, and set themselves on fire.) But the authors are not always careful to measure the magnitude of the unintended consequences, and seem a little too quick to mock whoever thought the change was a good idea (often the government).

The University of Chicago (where Levitt teaches) is described as "perhaps the most storied economics program in the world." I admit that's probably true, but it comes across as pretentious given that it was said (1)by a Chicago professor, and (2)in the context of poorly written sentimentality describing John List, who worked his way up from tiny state schools to become a Chicago professor, against all odds, while the rest of the profession was both stupid and out to get List because List proved them all wrong, and in response, they just hated him more.

They say we all have a religious need to flagellate and loathe ourselves, and attempts to reduce carbon emissions fill that need for godless liberals like me. I will let Paul Krugman and Brad Delong go after this chapter. (Delong posts way too frequently for me to keep track of, there are at least 10 related posts from Oct. 16 & 17, I linked to the final. Just google the book and you will discover the wild argument that erupted before the book was even published.)

I don't know. Perhaps, since I'm an economist and (sort of, maybe one day will) have a dog in this fight, I am being too critical and the average reader will like it. It just seemed a lot more fun when Freakonomics was about sumo wrestling and thus harmless. A friend compiled a list of reviews that mostly don't deal with the global warming ruckus. From a pure writing-quality perspective, I found the book sarcastic in obvious places with a surfeit of exclamation marks and thus not amusing.

Now, a discussion of small-f freakonomics. A few weeks ago, the macro professor I work for sent out this link. The key quote is this:
"When future generations ask the economics profession 'What were you doing while the great bubble built up ahead of the Second Great Depression?', and we have to reply 'Lots and lots of quirky little working papers about sumo wrestling and speed-dating', it is going to be really, really, fucking embarrassing"
That kind of bugged me, and in this sense I come to Steven Levitt's defense. Obviously, I think microeconomics is important, and not all economists have to study "the economy."

Personally, I am constantly struggling to find the balance between two extremes. On the one hand is very technical econometric or modeling mathematical minutia related to something to something important. Examples of something important is the returns to education, labor supply, or unemployment duration. But if you study any of those, you end up having to study the elasticity of some parameter or whether some production function or other should be CES or Cobb-Douglas, and I don't understand what the parameter means, let alone the elasticity of the parameter. (NB: actual debates way more arcane than this.)

On the other hand is something interesting, like baseball, which is generally covered by fewer people, so you don't have to go quite as deep into the details. Sometimes I'm convinced that doing research on baseball is fine--it's not going to make the world a better place, but neither will most "important" research, and it will prove that I can use basic applied econometric tools well, and I can apply it to things that will interest the average undergrad, which will be good for teaching. But fundamentally, I don't really care about baseball.

So hopefully I can find something "important" that I actually care about (in ridiculously great detail). Is that thing the protection of federal land for the purposes of conservation and recreation? Maybe. I just read Doug Scott's The Enduring Wilderness, which is basically a pretty wonky history of the Wilderness Act. I'm thinking maybe I could look at the effects on the local economy of wilderness preservation by putting together a database of all the National Parks, Monuments, and Wilderness areas, then looking at local tax revenues or something. Just a thought. The book made me aware of the existence of the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment. Maybe there's something there. We'll see.


  1. I'll definitely pass on the book now.

  2. The thing that bothered me the most about the first book was they assumed that all people want to rationally maximize the same quality--e.g. everyone naming their baby is choosing one that appears to lead to success.

  3. Anonymous2:56 PM

    Garret, check out my friend Ann's job market work on habitat preservation for the Spotted Owl, and it's impacts on local labor markets.