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.