'Superfreakonomics' Author Says It's All About Economics

In the follow-up to his best-selling book, Freakonomics, Steven Levitt applies economic theory to more nontraditional topics, including solutions to global warming and the price of oral sex. Host Scott Simon talks with Levitt about his new book, Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The law of unintended consequences may be as strong as gravity. Four years ago, Steven Levitt, University of Chicago economist, and Stephen Dubner, a New York Magazine writer, got together to write what they thought would be a small, interesting book that would come, inform and charm a few people, then go out of circulation.

But "Freakonomics" not only stayed on top of the bestseller list for two years but changed the way many people thought about the world - how to see and solve problems.

The authors have now made use of their widening prominence to learn and consider a whole new slew of issues in a way that may fundamentally upset conventional thinking, and that's the point of what they do.

We're joined by Steven D. Levitt, the John Bates Clark Award-winning economist, and co-author of the new book, "SuperFreakonomics." Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. STEVEN D. LEVITT (Author): Well, it's good to be back here, Scott.

SIMON: There are just so many things to talk about now that you've considered. But let me begin with that whole idea of the law of unintended consequences, because this book once again suggests that for every action there's a sometimes equal and opposite or at least unexpected reaction. For example, you take a look at drunk driving.

Mr. LEVITT: Yes. So drunk driving, as well all know, is incredibly dangerous. It raises - from my own research - the estimates are it raises the likelihood of being involved in a fatal accident by 13 times. But one of the options you have if you get drunk and you try to figure out whether it would make sense to drive home or to perhaps walk home, it turns out that walking drunk, according to the data, is eight times as dangerous as driving drunk.

So in other words, if you have to get a mile from your, you know, from a party to your home, you increase the likelihood of someone dying by eight times by choosing to walk home instead of drive home. You can always take a taxi. I mean, but I don't think anyone has ever really thought about that before, and there have been 25 years of public education campaigns to tell us about the risks of driving drunk.

SIMON: You suggest in here paying for organs - transplanted organs - as something that we find reprehensible and illegal in this country. But you've developed some information that suggests...

Mr. LEVITT: Yeah, you know, it's funny because to every economist, this repugnancy that goes with the selling of organs is hard to fathom. I mean, it's not just me, it's every - it seems so completely sensible that when you have a waiting list of people who need kidneys, and when every person is born with two kidneys and really doesn't need the second kidney very much at all, to allow between adults, consenting adults, the transfer of organs, it just seems like this is a case where morality has just not caught up with the reality.

SIMON: You say several times in the book that you make an effort to see the world not necessarily as a warm-hearted human being - although they're fine -but as a clear-eyed economist. When it comes to economic analysis, you say that we sometimes make some mistakes if we try and act through impulses which we tell ourselves are good rather than analytical.

Mr. LEVITT: Well, I think you can try to - there's value in doing the right thing. I mean, and even in - we have a chapter on altruism...

SIMON: Yes.

Mr. LEVITT: ...in the book. But what there is a shortage of is people who take a step back from that and try to answer questions separate from an agenda about what they want to be going on in the world. So I think a good example in this book is what we talk about on global warming. And so...

SIMON: Oh boy, is it.

Mr. LEVITT: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVITT: So we're not - look, I'm not a scientist and Steven Dubner's not a scientist either, but we've managed to interact with some of the greatest scientists in this country. I think what we conclude is that the nature of the debate is just completely wrong. The real problem isn't that there's too much carbon in the air. The real problem is it's too hot.

So the problem you want to solve is how do you make the Earth cooler? And it may very well be that reducing our, you know, how much fossil fuels we burn is the cheapest and most effective way to do that. But I think every evidence we have, it's incredibly difficult to change human behavior, especially on a global basis.

What we discuss in the book are some incredibly, shockingly simple ways that scientists have come up with for lowering the temperature of the Earth.

SIMON: Well tell us about a couple. I mean you point out that volcanoes actually help the Earth to cool.

Mr. LEVITT: Exactly. So there's very strong evidence that really serious volcanic eruptions, like the one in Mount Pinatubo, shoot enormous amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, and that serves as essentially a sunscreen that deflects much of the sunlight and lowers the temperature of the Earth. So when this happens, much of the warming of the previous 30 or 40 years, for the year or two in which the sulfur dioxide stays up there, is undone. And it's really an engineering problem.

It's like, how do you get a steady flow? And you don't need very much. If you put it at the North Pole and the South Pole, is where you really want to put it to cool the Earth, it turns out you need about as much as would come out of a regular garden hose. And it would be incredibly cheap to build and you just would have a spigot at the bottom. More or less, you could turn up or down if you wanted to make the Earth colder or warmer.

Now, in the long run, perhaps you'll want to deal with the carbon issue because we're going to have acidification of the oceans and the coral reefs will die if we don't do something about the carbon.

But if you just buy the time to keep the Earth cool for a while longer, I am certain that if we invest we will come up with technology that will allow us much more effectively in the future to pull carbon out of the air than we currently have. Now, the religion aspect of global warming is that technology is exactly what has got us into this disaster. We would be fools...

SIMON: I was going to point that out.

Mr. LEVITT: ...to try to rely on technology to get us out of it.

SIMON: And we're just fomenting more of a bad habit.

Mr. LEVITT: Right. But I just don't - if you look at the history of modern mankind, I think you will be hard pressed to find any particular problem that was serious that was solved by a behavioral change, as opposed to by a technological solution.

SIMON: You believe in - if they can be developed - cheap, simple solutions.

Mr. LEVITT: Oh, absolutely. Who wouldn't? Is there anyone who wouldn't? I mean you wouldn't think anybody could be against a cheap, simple solution to a problem that otherwise seems, you know, impossible to solve. I mean I think one of the ones we talk about was a terrible, terrible problem in cities in the 1880s and '90s in the United States, which was horse manure. And then within 20 years it evaporated because of a simple technological fix, which turned out to be the automobile. The automobile made the horse completely obsolete.

It's just the history of our existence is littered with examples of problems that look like we'll never ever be able to solve them, it's the end of the world, how we're going to do it? And then one smart set of folks comes along, finds a solution, and it's not an issue at all.

SIMON: Steve, thanks so much.

Mr. LEVITT: Oh, thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Steven D. Levitt, a co-author with Stephen J. Dubner of "Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance."

Thank you.

Mr. LEVITT: Thank you.

SIMON: We should mention that many scientists have come out against some of the view and conclusions in this book. The Union of Concerned Scientists sent a statement to WEEKEND EDITION that takes issue with the chapter titled "Global Cooling." According to the organization, the chapter, quote, "repeats a large number of easily discredited arguments regarding climate science, energy production, and geo-engineering. The authors appear to have taken a purposefully contrarian position on climate change, science and economics."

Now, we spoke with Professor Levitt last night. He disagrees with the characterization of his argument that's made by the Union of Concerned Scientists. And he's offered to come on our program and exchange ideas with someone from that group. We'd like to do that in the next few weeks.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: