New column (and video): From macro to freako

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My column this week is about Steven Levitt, who together with his co-conspirator Stephen Dubner has a sequel to Freakonomics coming out next Tuesday. It’s called Superfreakonomics. We’ve also put together this lovely video:

In the video, Levitt says the book contains “two things that might make people very, very mad.” One of them is a skeptical look into the merits of car seats for children (they’ve got no complaint with backward-facing infant seats, just the forward-facing ones for older kids), the other is a skeptical look at the current approach toward tackling global warming. He’s definitely right about the global warming reaction—just take a look at Joe Romm’s lengthy critique (via Krugman).

My own take, partially expressed in the column, is that the global warming segment of the book feels like a strange detour because it’s not really freakonomics at all. Levitt is dubious of big-picture predictive models—be they models of the macroeconomy or of the global climate—and that plays some role in the discussion. But it mainly seems like an excuse to write about the fun times he and Dubner had hanging out with Nathan Myhrvold and the gang at Intellectual Ventures, which came about because Myhrvold was a fan of Freakonomics. There’s none of Levitt’s trademark statistical detective work, just a bit of star-struck oohing and aahing and the assertion that technological innovation is more likely to solve the problem of global warming than privation is. I tend to agree with that assertion, but I am at least a little bit skeptical as to whether Nathan Myhrvold is going to be the source of that innovation.

Beyond that, I liked the book. My buddy Ezra Klein has big problems with the “drunk walking” section—and again, that’s a (very brief) part of the book based not on Levitt’s economic research but on a bit of not-ultra-sophisticated statistical reasoning inspired, Levitt says, by a throwaway remark by his Chicago colleage Kevin Murphy. But my memory was that the message of that tale clearly wasn’t that you should drive home drunk instead, but that you should call a cab. Then I looked it up, on page 3: “So as you leave your friend’s party, the decision should be clear: driving is safer than walking. (It would be even safer, obviously, to drink less, or to call a cab.)” Well yeah, I guess taking a cab is their recommendation. But I think I would have phrased that differently.

There are two references in the column that I should attribute more fully here. The “observer” who described Freakonomics as “CSI: Economics” was David Warsh. And the economist who wrote of “economic imperialism” was Edward Lazear, the final chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Bush Administration.

Finally, if you’re wondering about the weird-looking blurry rectangle to the left of me near the beginning of the video, it’s to obscure Levitt’s street address. I just thought it would be kind of creepy to have that in the video.

Update: More on the global warming brouhaha here.

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