Saturday, April 12, 2008

Why the Freakonomics Craze?

With the success of Freakonomics, there is now:

Tim Harford’s Logic of Life
Tyler Cowen’s Discover your Inner Economist
Steve Landsburg’s More Sex is Safer Sex
Robert Frank’s The Economic Naturalist
Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational

And I'm sure I've missed some. They make good bookstore reads, in that, like a trivia book, they are fun, but after a while boring because there really isn't a theme. I'm with famed game theorist Ariel Rubinstein, who mocks Freakonomics mercilessly, and quotes from the book:

the most likely result of having read this book is a simple one: you may find yourself asking a lot of questions

What happened to teaching answers? Is it really more profound to be more confused after reading a book? Arguing from authority (Freakonomics modestly notes that Levitt is "the most brilliant young economist in America"), it seems like Levitt is demolishing a staid and blinded establishment, yet to the extent his points are truly important and novel, they are untrue (e.g., abortion and crime), and to the extent they are true and novel, they are unimportant (e.g., sumo wrestlers engage in quid pro quos when on the bubble in tournaments). As Rubinstein points out, the book makes points, but not really, points particular to economics:

Freakonomics expresses the aspiration to expand economics to encompass any question that requires the use of common sense. Take, for example, Levitt’s tales of the big city. The Chicago Municipality administers an annual test for schoolchildren. A suspicion arose that teachers were “correcting” their students’ answers before sending the tests to be checked. Levitt obtained the data from the municipality and developed a computer program that looks for classes with suspicious combinations of answers. For example, if all of the tudents in a particular class responded correctly to questions 7, 8 and 10, and erred on question 9, a suspicion arises that the teacher falsified the answers to four questions. (On question 9, the teacher either made a mistake himself or tried unsuccessfully to avoid raising suspicion.) In this way, Levitt discovered dozens of deceitful teachers. The IDF’s intelligence units and credit card companies use similar algorithms. What have we learned about Levitt? He is a smart guy
with connections in the municipality. What is the connection to economics? None.

And then there's the reference that Levitt was consulted by the CIA to advise them on finding evil-doers. These agencies have hundreds of thousands of employees, and in a bureaucracy, a disproportionate number of inside-the-box thinkers. That they might pay for a speech by an outsider is rather unremarkable, as I'm sure the list of such speakers is long and boring. It's hardly an exclusive group (though, truth be told, the CIA has not asked me for my opinion--player hater!). So, I'm no fan. Of all the Freakonomics-like books, I think Freakonomics is the worst.

So why such emulation? Publishers. As Rick Horgan, corporate suit extraordinare notes in this wonderful interview at this publishing website:

"The biggest deciding factor is the comparison book. That’s the way you sell in books these days. A book comes in, if I don’t have a like book to compare it to, then I’m lame, I’m crippled when I try to sell it internally."

Q: Will a lack of comparable sales prevent you from picking up a book?
Rick Horgan: Totally.

So until you can say, this is gonna be "just like the bestseller Freakonomics", a book publisher is like a dog trying to learn calculus. If you have a new idea, like, say, Freakonomics the original, he'd probably suggest self publishing.


Frank said...

Having not read any of the bunch, I've always snobbishly supposed and argued that they're rubbish. Nice to hear that I can now appeal to authority in my arguments. However, I can't point to Rubinstein's Nobel prize because he hasn't got one. I recommend/gift Easterly, McMillan or Schelling to those who want to know about economics.
Nice to see you've found a way of blogging again.

Eric Falkenstein said...

Oops. I confused him with Aumann--another famous Israeli game theorist. My bad.

Anonymous said...

I don't think these books are intended to be read by economists, they are intended to be read by people who read John Grisham. They want to feel like they understand something about economics, and these books let people relate to what's being said.

I disagree that books need to have a theme or unified message to be sophisticated enough to deserve our attention, many of my favorite books are hodgepodges of interesting info. I would say that 95% of "theme" books are way too long and say the same thing over and over again, they should be no more than essays.

Dan in Euroland said...

Strikes me that the publisher is acting in conformance with your relative risk hypothesis, no?

Eric Falkenstein said...

Funny I didn't think of that, but yeah. The modal strategy, that with the greatest returns too, is to run with the heard, in that deviations are often based on ill-founded hope. But then, if you are to break in, if you don't want to be merely a typical corporate climber trying to replace the Bob Horgans of the world, you will need to take risk and succeed.