Freakonomics was freaky, but Superfreakonomics pushes the envelope even further, analysing the price of prostitution, how terrorists can be tracked through their financial records and most controversially how technological advances could remedy global warming. Stephen J Dubner responds to its “angry” reaction
Your new book had a heated reception. You’re accused of denying the existence of climate change.
We understood it was a hornets’ nest … but the angry level of the discourse has been surprising. We’re trying to describe global warming in a way that politicians or environmentalists generally do not. We wanted to look at it from a rational perspective and say, ‘All right, the problem may be extremely serious but what can be done?’ The objections are based on emotional responses and a failure to read the book in the spirit it was written in.
You suggest that pumping liquefied sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere could perhaps repair the ozone layer.
It seems as though we shouldn’t solve a problem that was caused by technology with technology. It’s like the hair of the dog; you’ve drunk too much and now you’re going to drink a bit more. It seems ethically, philosophically and even religiously wrong but if the problem gets that bad, it’s nice to have that option. Even the most ardent advocates of exploring the sulphur dioxide solution would all rather not do it. The analogy we make in the book is that if you build a house, you try very hard not to create a fire, but if you have a fire you really want a sprinkler system.
Do attitudes change over time?
These solutions will seem repugnant if you’re looking at them from a purely environmental standpoint. But things that seemed repugnant even a decade ago no longer seem so repugnant, although sometimes it takes 100 years.
An example we give in the book is life insurance. Two hundred years ago it was considered a slight on human dignity to profit from someone’s death, even a loved one’s. Now people can bet on when a celebrity is going to die and we don’t consider that repugnant. Some of the global warming solutions we write about will seem a lot less repugnant ten years from now if the problem is getting worse.
Is it harder being green during a recession?
Recession or not, there are a lot of reasons to develop alternative fuel systems and we address that point in the book. There are so many different ways to capture energy. Wave power is phenomenal. Most of the globe is covered in water and most of that water makes waves. It’s a free, renewable, constant energy. Nathan Mhyrvold, who was involved in the design of the Salter Sink [a flotation device that can potentially stop hurricanes], is an engineer who has been working for three to four decades on wave power. If energy storage systems were robust enough to handle it right now, everything would be fine and we’d all be thrilled to not be burning oil, except for a few countries that have a lot of oil.
It’s amazing that some of the best economists are still debating 70 to 80 years after the fact whether Franklin Roosevelt’s monetary interventions exacerbated or helped during the Great Depression
These are all interesting discussions. Ours is really about if the worst comes to the worst, what should be done?
You’ve also been criticised for not discussing the credit crunch.
It’s not what we do. A lot of people don’t realise the difference between macroeconomics, which tries to describe how our financial and monetary systems work, and microeconomics, which is what we do. Micro uses data that is much more reflective of individual human behaviour that when aggregated can explain human behaviour at large.
Are you not fans of macroeconomics?
Part of the problem with macro is that even in hindsight it is a very blunt instrument. It’s amazing that some of the best economists are still debating 70 to 80 years after the fact whether Franklin Roosevelt’s monetary interventions exacerbated or helped during the Great Depression.
We’ve argued for years that trying to predict or even describe the macro economy is a very difficult endeavour. It’s like climate. It’s what physicists would call a complex dynamic system. It has a lot of levels and layers and all of them interact with one another. One disadvantage that the economy has is that it also incorporates psychology, which is extremely unpredictable and prone to panic and irrationality.
Did the success of Freakonomics make it hard to write a second book?
We knew expectations would be higher and wanted to exceed them—but our expectations are higher than reader’s expectations. We felt that we wrote as good a book as we could with the first one and then, because it was successful, if we did another one it had to be better. But on the other hand, we had the huge advantage of people coming to us with data and story ideas. In that regard it was easier.
How does your partnership work?
We spend a lot of time not necessarily physically together, because Levitt’s in Chicago and I’m in New York, but talking by email or on the phone. We started on this book before the first one had come out, when we had no idea whether it would be successful.
We each do completely different things. I really like Levitt’s research and, as the writer, I’m the one who actually puts the sentences down in the first go-round. We then go back many times, talking it through. The last book was built on a stack of Levitt’s research papers going back 15 years. We had to build this one from scratch so we had to work out what kind of topics we were going to cover and what kind of research it would entail. We spent a lot of time going through strategies and figuring out the storytelling. It was a true collaboration.
How did you choose the subjects to cover?
Some of them, like the prostitutes, were areas that Levitt was already doing empirical research on. The terrorism came about partly because when I first met Levitt, around two years after September 11, I asked him, ‘What were the biggest targets you could work your way up to?’ and terrorism was on his mind. Shortly after that we started a project with a UK bank, which had a great incentive to help the British government capture terrorists. Levitt had incentive to use the methodology he’d created to catch cheating teachers and cheating sumo wrestlers. You could say who cares about sumo wrestlers or even teachers—but if you could hone your skills on them and then step it up to terrorists, that could be really useful.
You analyse how the cost of prostitute services in Chicago has fluctuated over the past century because of changing social mores. Could the same happen in a country like New Zealand, where the sex industry has been decriminalised?
The angry level of the discourse has been surprising. We’re trying to describe global warming in a way that politicians or environmentalists generally do not. We wanted to look at it from a rational perspective
One of the biggest reasons why Nevada made prostitution legal and available in some areas is that they realised that people are doing it anyway, so why not take a cut off the top for the tax coffers? Then it can be regulated and taxed. We’re not really advocates of a moral position and we’re kind of equal opportunity offenders. No political ideology will be 100-percent comfortable with our arguments because they’re based on a scenario-by-scenario basis. I hope it adds some value to think of problem via this lens than a moralistic, ideological or political lens.
What are you working on next?
We want to try something a bit different to these two books, which put together 50 to 100 different topics and try to draw different conclusions from that. We have a couple of ideas that would be a little bit more directed.
We were both really inspired by writing some of the stories about problem-solving in this book. We have an idea about how to approach philanthropic problem-solving from a new perspective. We want to look what kind of incentives are the most and least effective. We want to bring experimentation to the realm of largescale problem-solving, because that’s one thing that firms in the US and the UK don’t do much of. If we can write about it the way we envision, that might be where we end up five years from now.