John Blundell reviews SuperFreakonomics

I approached SuperFreakonomics with great hope but also mild trepidation. The great hope was that Levitt and Dubner had pulled it off again after the incredible (and well-deserved) success of Freakonomics – 4m copies in 35 languages!

The mild trepidation was caused by an unsolicited letter sent to me by Levitt when my review of Freakonomics appeared four years ago on the IEA website (see also Ed Smith’s review in Economic Affairs)

Levitt wrote words to the effect that my review was pretty much the most ingenious and best written of all he’d read. Wow!

Fan letters from winners of the biennial John Bates Clark Medal are to be treasured.

Note to self: file with Friedman, Hayek, Buchanan and Coase.

So do they pull it off again? The answer is a resounding shout it from the rooftops “yes”, yes in spades doubled and redoubled. Save this for a long flight because you will not want to stop.

They did not rush to capitalise on their first success but rather waited four years (or however long it took) until they had the material to justify a second book. Well done them for deciding to build the brand. And they have not only created their own brand (pushing micro-economics into the unlikeliest places) but also created a mini tsunami of excellent books on economics that are accessible, well-written and free of maths. The founders of the IEA must be smiling down on us.

SuperFreakonomics is insightful and superbly well written. The Notes (p 221 – p 256) are a treasure trove, a must read in themselves.

To me they drove home the richness of micro, my first and only love. Nobody could ever write a book like this about the arid desert of macro.

That possibly leads me to a warning. If your bright 16 to 18 year-old reads this book and announces “I’m going to study economics at university!” then a caution might be in order. This is not what most (all?) economics degrees look like. I hate to write this but you might get closer to this kind of intellectual inquiry by taking a degree in sociology (shudder) with strong statistical, micro economics and history components. Another route for a budding Freakonomist would be one of those build your own degrees in interdisciplinary studies type programmes. That’s the way to avoid the macro and get into real issues.

When Freakonomics appeared its most notorious claim (and I simplify hugely) was that Roe versus Wade (legalisation of abortion) was responsible for declining crime in big American cities rather than the new breed of cop typified by Bill Bratton of Boston, New York and most recently Los Angeles. The chiefs went ballistic so I challenged America’s top cops to take on Levitt in the pages of the IEA journal – not one accepted.

Levitt and his journalist pal Dubner really do deserve our thanks and our admiration. They are driving the re-energisation of economics. It’s a real joy to read and observe and learn.

Four years from now I look forward to reviewing Super Duper Freakonomics.


John Blundell is Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

I very much agree with John. This is better than ‘Freakonomics’ and the chapter on dealing with climate change is a must read for those burning up aviation fuel on the way to Copenhagen.

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