Book Review: Super Freakonomics

Just as in Freakonomics, the underlying premise of Super Freakonomics is that people respond to incentives. In order to control behavior, we must understand and manipulate the related incentives, no matter how distant and unrelated they may seem. Also like the first in the series, this book is more of a series of disjointed stories than a cohesive progression of thought.

Introducing television did a huge service to Indian women. India has traditionally had a significant preference for male children over females. There are 35 million fewer females than males in the population, and most of the missing women were killed or malnourished to death. The problem was exacerbated by the introduction of ultrasounds. Before this phenomenon took place, 54% of women believed wife beating was justified under certain circumstances. But from 2001-06, millions of Indians got TV for the first time, and women who recently got TV are significantly less likely to tolerate wife beating, male child preference, and dependence on husbands. Enrollment for women in schools increased as well, because television effectively empowered women.

We blame automobiles for many of our problems in the world today—pollution, accidental deaths, and traffic problems. But the advent of cars actually solved other major problems of the time. Horses in New York City caused gridlock, and they constantly died in the streets before being abandoned by their owners. The municipality would wait for them to putrefy in the street before they were chopped into pieces and removed.  A New Yorker was twice as likely to die from a horse in 1990 than one is to die from a car today. 60 foot piles of manure would pollute more than exhaust does today, and streams of the stuff would seep into basements. It’s interesting that America found a savior in the auto at the time, and now searches for a savior to the auto before pollution causes irreparable damage to the environment.

Women have had it rougher than men throughout history. Women have had a shorter life expectancy. A million women have been killed for witchcraft. Women who went to Harvard earned less than half of the male counterparts. Women are more likely to leave the workforce to raise a family. Overweight women and those with bad teeth suffer wage discrimination more than men with the same problems. The solution is apparently to play high school sports. Women who play high school sports are more likely to go onto college and specialize in jobs that earn more money. Research has shown that women tend to work fewer hours and take more vacations than men, especially those with children. Men have a weakness for money, just as women have a weakness for children. Men perform better on exams incentivized with financial rewards, while women perform the same.

The gender income discrepancy led to an unintended consequence in the 1910s: the market for prostitution exploded. At one point, 1 out of 50 American women in their 20s were prostitutes. Top earning prostitutes brought in as much as $430,000 a year, and often the higher earners didn’t need to see as many clients as their lesser-paid counterparts. However, wages have fallen dramatically over the past 100 years, mainly because men can now find women interested in casual sex much more easily, a phenomenon fondly nicknamed “friends with benefits.” Today, only 5% of men lose their virginity to a prostitute, and 70% of men have sex before marriage, compared to 33% just 20 years ago. Most prostitutes experienced rough conditions. They typically earn $27 per hour, working 10 tricks in 13 hours per week. 83% of them are addicted to drugs. A typical prostitute experiences a dozen instances of violence, typically when the man can’t get erect. Women also have a much greater risk of arrest than men; only 1/1200 tricks result in a man’s arrest. Condoms are used less than 25% of the time, but less than 3% of men who hire female prostitutes have HIV. 35% of men who hire male prostitutes have HIV. When a prostitute gets locked up, a scarcity emerges, which enticed more to join the market. Police understood this and eventually left pimps and prostitutes alone in exchange for keeping it in private and away from kids. A Chicago street prostitute is more likely to have sex with a cop than to be arrested by one, and only 1/4500 tricks leads to prison time.

The economics of black market supply and demand are also true of drug trafficking. The US war on drugs is ineffective because it focuses on sellers rather than buyers. 90% of prison time is occupied by drug dealers. The government should go after those who demand the drugs instead; without demand, the supply will dry up on its own. This aligns with my belief that the proper use of taxes is usually a better remedy than outright bans on products and services.

There are a number of shorter stories sprinkled throughout the book, culminating in very simple conclusions. For example, a drunk person who decides to walk home is 5-8 times more likely to die in an accident than one who drives home, on a per-mile basis. 2001 was the “summer of the shark” because it invoked a massive amount of media coverage around shark attacks. However, only 68 people were attacked that year worldwide, and only 4 died.

Overall, I felt that the book was very disjointed, and the stories weaved in and out of one another. The authors dedicated a lot of time to prostitution, which they also did in Freakonomics. There are some interesting stories intertwined throughout, but it would have been more interesting if there were a greater number of lessons sprinkled throughout, rather than constantly referring back to basic laws of Keynesian economics which I learned back in Introductory Macroeconomics at UC Santa Cruz.