By David Henderson
I’m only 27 pages into Levitt’s and Dubner’s new book, but already I’m liking Super Freakonomics better than Freakonomics. My problem with the first book was that it tended to emphasize small aspects of some issues and missed the big picture. The example I have in mind is their discussion of real estate agents’ incentives; they don’t ask why people use agents rather than doing it themselves, a question that would have led to them to talk about division of labor and specialization and, probably, would have led them to a less-hostile view of real estate agents.
But this one, so far, is different. They seem to have the bigger picture. Two examples:
1. TV and women in India. They quote work by Emily Oster and Robert Jensen that finds that the introduction of cable and satellite, with a wide range of programming, gave women more independence. That makes sense. We so often hear people criticize the “boob tube” and not talk about some of the benefits of it. I gather that later in the book, they’re going to show the negatives of TV in America but, still, I found their discussion refreshing.
2. Horses and manure. After having taken George Hilton’s transportation economics at UCLA in 1973, I never thought the same of horses again. Hilton pointed out that horses in New York and other cities were responsible for flies and disease because they dumped 10.5 pounds of manure and urine on a typical day. Hilton pointed out that when people over 100 years ago talked about pollution, they had in mind the pollution created by horses. That’s when I started to see the absurdity of bumper stickers I saw in L.A. that said, “Fight pollution: ride a horse.” When I go on one of my favorite walks in Monterey, I refer to the horse mess on the trail as pollution. That’s due to what Hilton taught me.
Levitt and Dubner tell a similar story, with more data and an even bigger estimate of the amount of manure dumped by horses. They point out that electric street cars and cars were a huge improvement.