- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 27, 2009


By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

William Morrow, $29.99, 270 pages

Reviewed by Jeremy Lott

“Superfreakonomics” is the long awaited follow-up to University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner’s 2005 book “Freakonomics.” Their first collaboration was one of the best-selling pop economics books of all time. It has multiple editions and millions of copies in print. The sequel has come out of the gates strong, commanding a full hour on ABC’s “20/20” news program.

The centerpiece of “Freakonomics” was a chapter that argued that the decline in most crime that started in the mid-1990s might be attributed to Roe v. Wade. Drawing on the results of an earlier study that Mr. Levitt had written with Yale law professor John J. Donohue III, the co-authors asserted that “when the government gives a woman the opportunity to make her own decision about abortion, she generally does a good job of figuring out if she is in a good position to raise the baby well. If she decides she can’t, she often chooses the abortion.”

The reported result was a spike in the number of “wanted” children and a drop in the number of “unwanted” children, more parental care, and thus a lower incidence of the sort of social pathologies that you can expect from neglected offspring. In short: more abortions, less crime.

A great number of people found that argument objectionable and the evidence for it questionable. They granted that, sure, the United States had seen a great number of abortions since 1973 and also a fall in crime, but the timing was all wrong. Crime should have fallen much earlier if abortion was driving the decline. Boston-based Federal Reserve economists Christopher Foote and Christopher Goetz found an error in the original paper’s calculations that Mr. Levitt admitted was “personally quite embarrassing,” and argued that the error made the findings pretty dicey.

The follow-up, “Superfreakonomics,” so far has not disappointed in the controversy department, although this time a different sort of ox is being gored. Environmentalists and left-leaning economists are beside themselves with sputtering outrage over Chapter 5, “What Do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo Have in Common?”

(Corrected paragraph:) There, Mr. Levitt and Mr. Dubner tackle the problem of what do about the threat of global warming. They argue that global warming is a real but often overhyped problem; that the usual green approaches to the problem are incredibly expensive; that these supposed solutions would be too little, too late if the problem really is as bad as some environmentalists insist and that the most effective and cheapest solutions may be found in far less expensive scientific solutions from an emerging field called “geoengineering.”

The authors have been called sloppy, dishonest and global warming deniers by several critics, including New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Mr. Levitt responded on the Times-hosted Freakonomics blog by pulling out the series of factual assertions that the chapter puts forward (including “The Earth has gotten substantially warmer over the last 100 years.”) and asking what all the fuss is about. “I just don’t get it,” Mr. Levitt wrote. “I can’t understand why any environmentalist who really cares about the Earth’s future could say with a straight face that geoengineering doesn’t deserve a seat at the table as the global-warming debate heats up.”

The real conflict, which Mr. Levitt says he cannot grasp, is over morality. “Freakonomics ” was in many ways not a well-thought-out book. Its organization and its writing were too loose. That same criticism does not apply to “Superfreakonomics.” It is more intentional and better written. It examines some perennial obsessions of Mr. Levitt’s (the economics of prostitution - groan) but it makes room for larger problems than last time and handles them more intelligently. One result of this larger vision is a ringing endorsement of the goodness of scientific progress.

People who “love to complain” about how “terrible the modern world is compared with the past” are “nearly always wrong,” the authors write. “On just about any dimension you can think of - warfare, crime, income, education, transportation, worker safety, health - the twenty-first century is far more hospitable to the average human than any earlier time.” They insist that they don’t strongly disagree with the value judgment of environmentalists who “are pleading for humankind to consume less and pollute less.” In fact, they call this a “noble invitation. But, as incentives go, it’s not a very strong one.”

Those are fighting words, of course. Mr. Krugman, in a particularly unguarded, nasty moment, writes that “Dubner and Levitt are in the process of finding out” what happens when you annoy liberal environmentalists. Former Clinton Treasury Department official Brad DeLong called on them to “abjectly apologize.” My guess is that the authors will continue to be denounced and resented for some time for having jump-started this argument but that their approach to global warming will be given a go. Even now, many of the critics backhandedly admit that maybe this geoengineering stuff is worth a shot.

Jeremy Lott is editor of Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch newsletter and author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency”(Thomas Nelson, 2007).

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