Posts Tagged ‘Freakonomics’

Aught Lang Syne: The Decade in Nonfiction, Part I

Last week, NPI gave an overview of fiction (in two parts!) of the Aughts. Yesterday, Josh pointed out the popular economics trend in this decade’s nonfiction. Today, Josh and John are going over (in two parts!) what they believe are the biggest nonfiction books of the Aughts.

America: The Book – Jon Stewart and The Daily Show writers

I bought this book for a good friend at a surprise birthday party in high school, as did another friend of mine unbeknownst to me. My copy was not kept since I didn’t write a note inside mine. I considered frowning. But, this situation nonetheless demonstrated the book’s appeal.  America: The Book is funny and representative of the politically satirical form of comedy that Stewart engendered in the Aughts through The Daily Show. The book is filled with little tidbits like: “Were you Aware? Cloture is something all Senators seek when a piece of beloved legislation dies.” There are also asides written by Stephen Colbert and Ed Helms. But, America: The Book is insightful as well as humorous; if a scholar in a future decade wanted to understand the American political climate in the early 2000s, this is one book he should examine, particularly the chapter on The Future of Democracy.

–Josh

The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It – Paul Collier

In this book, development economist (and a former lecturer of mine) Paul Collier looks at the most impoverished countries in the world (home to about one billion individuals) and asks why they are experiencing so little growth. Explanations seem to occur in fours in the Aughts; there are four development traps that each of these countries typically suffer from: the conflict trap, the natural resource trap, landlocked with bad neighbors, and bad governance, particularly in small countries. While many of Collier’s suggestions are difficult to implement, the most promising is that trade policy needs to lower trade barriers for the Bottom Billion, giving preferential access to their exports. Another important highlight of this book is his attack on the misguided policies of NGOs and other charitable organizations. Ultimately, Collier popularized and integrated his important and informative empirical studies into one of the Aughts’ best development nonfiction books of the decade.

–Josh

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Aught Lang Syne: The Rise of Popular Economics

One clear development in nonfiction during the Aughts has been the rise of popular economics. Popular economics nonfiction existed before this decade, but the genre proliferated in 2005 with the wild success of Freakonomics. Discover Your Inner Economist, More Sex is Safer Sex, Predictably Irrational, The Economic Naturalist, and SuperFreakonomics among others followed.

What is popular economics? Well, this nonfiction is popular in the sense that it’s written in a way that any moderately intelligent person could understand the material without any previous exposure to economics. While none of the authors of these books have writing skills as superb as Malcolm Gladwell’s or Michael Lewis’, several of the authors employ quite deft prose. Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics were co-written by a journalist, Stephen Dubner, which explains why they’re the best of the bunch in terms of writing style. Their focus on anecdotes to tease out concepts and findings is a method used to some degree by all of the authors to make their books accessible. But, perhaps the best part of their writing is their explication of their findings. For instance, they explain why the correlation between blacker names and lower income is not causal:
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Monday Medley

What we read while getting nostalgic about driving the New York State Thruway in the Summer of ’69:

  • We basically should just tell you to read the New York Times Magazine each week, but when Political Science gets a feature-length article, it merits additional mention: Check out this article chronicling Political Science Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s impressive modeling to predict Iranian nuclear behavior, among other interesting tidbits.
  • Want to know why to you have to shut-off your iPod during take-off? If you’ve ever flown on a plane before, you should find this series of interviews by the Freakonomics blog with an anonymous commercial pilot quite interesting.

Predictably Paternalistic

arielyWhen I had a class with Dan Ariely—author of the highly acclaimed Predictably Irrational—last semester he performed a dollar auction, where students could bid on a $20 bill. The highest bidder got the $20, but the second-highest bidder had to pay the second-highest bid. What generally results is a bidding war that goes above $20, causing both the highest and the second-highest bidder to lose money. Predictably, then, this led to an irrational escalation of the bids up to $30, at which point the two remaining bidders agreed to split the cost.

Now, the Freakonomics blog directs us to Swoopo, an auction website that takes full advantage of this behavioral economics insight:

“How can Swoopo, the online auction site, rake in $2,151 selling a laptop for $35.86? Easy: set an opening price of $0.01 (almost free!), then let each new bidder top the last by only a penny, and extend the auction each time someone places a bid in the final seconds. Oh, and collect $0.60 from each player for each bid they place. The winner of the auction might walk away with a good deal, but the losers will have racked up big fees chasing their sunk costs. The house always wins. Writer Mark Gimein calls the site “the evil bastard child of game theory and behavioral economics.”
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