Allen Lane £20
Superfreakonomics, By Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner
The 'Freakonomics' authors on everything you never knew you wanted to know about sex and terror
Sunday 18 October 2009
Levitt and Dubner, in this "freakquel" to their wildly successful 2005 book Freakonomics, offer another collection of "things you always thought you knew but didn't; and things you never knew you wanted to know but do"." Such as, why it's more likely that you'll die as a drunk pedestrian than a drunk driver, and how monkeys can be taught to use money. So it's great fun. It doesn't quite scale the controversial heights of their first effort, which alleged that the cause of the fall in the crime rate in the 1990s was legalised abortion in the 1970s, which meant the embryonic criminals from the underclass just weren't being born. This time, the authors debunk climate change (but they're not the first to have a go at that) and their big idea, a hosepipe pumping liquefied sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, is perhaps just a little too freaky even for these intellectual venturers.
Would I recommend this book to an economics teacher? Yes, provided they were comfortable discussing with their students what might be described as "adult themes". Some of us were brought up to understand the laws of supply and demand in terms of how they affected the market for apples, cups of tea, or cars. Not our freakonomists, who instead turn to the market for paid sex in Chicago, then and now, to stimulate the reader. You, like me, may never have realised, for example, quite how much working girls used to earn in the halcyon days of sexual repression. In the Edwardian era, the best brothel in Chicago earned those who rented their bodies in it around $430,000 a year, at today's prices. The sisters who owned the establishment became even more fabulously wealthy. Even the average brothel worker in those days could expect to earn about $76,000 a year, allowing for inflation.
Yet today, the profession pays pitifully small amounts. Still more than the alternatives – such as doing chores for drug gangs or working as hairdressers – but nothing like what these women's grannies were earning. The typical prostitute in Chicago works 13 hours a week, performing 10 sex acts during that period, and earns an hourly wage of approximately $27. Her average weekly take home pay is $350, which includes an average of $20 stolen from clients and an allowance for discounted payment in drugs rather than cash. So it isn't much, considering, and the reason is supply and demand. Especially demand. Many more men can get far more sex these days for free. Meanwhile, supply has risen, especially as women are nowadays more willing to offer oral sex. Once a rare and costly sexual delicacy, it now accounts for some 55 per cent of prostitutes' transactions, at an average of $37.26 a pop.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that economists have demonstrated that pimps offer substantial economic benefits for a modest fee, in sharp contrast to estate agents, who offer little or nothing for an enormous reward. Prostitutes earn more on Saturdays, because clients try the more expensive items on the menu. They are also, in common with the giant drug companies or airlines, able to operate price discrimination – for example charging less to black clients than they do white ones, with Hispanics in between. And so the fascinating economics lesson goes on, and on... but you do feel a bit sordid afterwards.
The authors are rather more uplifting on the subject of terrorism. One of the puzzles they solve is "Why suicide bombers should buy life assurance." The reason is subtle. The best way to deal with terror is not to wait for it to happen but to prevent it, which means tracking the terrorists. You could try, as the West's intelligence agencies have, trawling through billions of bits of electronic "chatter" and cumbersome surveillance. Or you could ask a bank. One British IT specialist was apparently able to construct an algorithm powerful enough to pick out likely terrorists. Factors such as having a Muslim first and second name are powerful indicators, but hardly discriminating. More telling is to examine patterns of usage – large deposits followed by lots of smallish cash withdrawals, few cheques, direct debits or regular payments, no savings accounts and – of course – no life cover. Thus, suicide bombers should take out some life cover to avoid detection by the secret services and their friends in the banks' IT departments. I'm not sure why we're telling the terrorists this secret, though. There must be a freakonomic explanation, but I'm freaked if I can figure it out.
Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The truth about 'girl things': Three cheers for Heather Watson's honesty
- 2 Man who held up 'hire me' sign at Waterloo station returns a year later with 'I'm hiring' sign
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Tennis fan suing Australian Open organisers for 'failing to shade spectators' during Murray match
- 5 Syrian refugee child beaten by Istanbul Burger King manager for eating customer’s leftover food
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction
Alfred Hitchcock's unseen Holocaust documentary to be screened
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Photographer Matt Lankes' portraits of the cast of Boyhood influenced the film's storyline
British Muslim leaders outraged after Eric Pickles says followers of Islam should 'prove their identity'
UK terror fears: My jihadist son returned from Syria mentally scarred – now he is being ignored
Nigel Farage: NHS might have to be replaced by private health insurance
Billy Crystal: 'Stop shoving gay sex scenes in my face'
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners