Tag Archives: innovation

Superfreaks

–UPDATED on Feb 15, see end of post–

You’ve probably heard of Freakonomics, a great popular economics book (and there are an awful lot of those out nowadays, aren’t there?) and you’ve likely heard of the follow-up, Superfreakonomics.  Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner wrote these books.  Steven Levitt teaches at my school, but I’ve never taken his class.  Either he or the school administration is not interested in offering his class to evening students.  Thanks.  Jerks.

This is not a review of Superfreakonomics.  I loved the first book, but have yet to get my hands on the new one.  I’m mentioning it, because the last chapter on global warming has kicked off quite an energetic volley of phrasemongering.  Dubner & Levitt wrote a chapter that essentially offers some alternate opinions on what we should do about global warming, compared to the currently dominant Al Gore solution.  (For the record I’m all for CFL’s.  Just not in the bedroom–they’re not effectively dimmable.)

So, this has kicked up quite a storm of controversy.  A dusty, dusty storm that threatens to block out the sun.  That wouldn’t be so bad, if you believe in geoengineering as a way to initiate global cooling.  But a lot of the criticism, as you can probably guess, is shrill and nasty and condescending.  And, of course, it is the nastiest stuff that travels across the internet fastest.

Thankfully, there is some in-depth discussion available.  Arguing for the  freakonomists is Nathan Myhrvold.  Myhrvold is probably used to telling people to slow down and listen for a second, just because of how his name is spelled.  He was interviewed in the book, talking about the limitations of solar-cell infrastructure, among other things.  He has some confidence that there are some cheap geoengineering possibilities, that might become solutions.  I won’t go into his bio, because you can read it on the Freakonomics NYT blog, where he’s responded to some of the criticism.  I hope you do read his response to his critics, because contextualization is badly needed when people start slinging mud.

Arguing capably and reasonably against the global cooling chapter in the book (and particularly, against geoengineering) is Real Climate.  What I love about their argument is that they go right after the sound-bite logic that Levitt and Dubner have deployed to simplify their case.  It’s funny to me that many commentators start by praising the first book, then saying this one is garbage.  My guess is they weren’t subject matter experts on any of the chapters in the first book, so they couldn’t dismiss any of it as overly simplistic.

Of course, Levitt and Dubner wrote what was intended to be a popular book.  Of course they’re phrasemongers.  That’s what they set out to be.  But we don’t need to act like children about it, do we, Joe Romm?

P.S. The comments on The Economist website frequently contain excellent information and analysis.  Such is the case with The Economist’s review of SuperFreakonomics.

Feb 15 UPDATE:

On my recent vacation in Costa Rica, we did a little snorkeling and I finished reading Superfreakonomics.  We did the snorkeling because, due to ocean acidification (lots of carbon dioxide is absorbed into the oceans, reducing pH and making them more acidic) coral reefs are being eroded.  We don’t take lots of tropical vacations, so we might not have many more chances to see coral reefs.  Ocean acidification, as Superfreaks Leavitt and Dubner have noted on their NYT blog (but not in the book, which is unfortunate), cannot be helped by blocking sunlight through cheap geoengineering solutions suggested in the book.

A couple weeks in Costa Rica gives you a lot of appreciation for delicate ecosystems, especially if you hire guides for your hikes through cloud forest and reserves and your snorkeling excursions.  A rare species of tree frog that lives only in cloud forests above 2,000 ft. doesn’t really impact our lives, so far as we know.  But species extinction, as a possible unintended consequence of our own economic vigor, should at least lead us to pause and count the cost of cheap consumer goods and long commutes.

Unintended consequences, as it happens, are the Achilles heel of Superfreakonomics.  Leavitt and Dubner do discuss them.  They seem to take glee in the clearly observed fact that well-meaning government policy, for example, can lead to negative unintended consequences.  While they don’t come right out and say it, the implication is that we’d be better off letting the market handle it.  The market is, naturally, composed of individuals and groups selfishly acting in their individually perceived best interests.  But by definition, externalities are market failures, and often require collective action that is not in our individual selfish interests to mitigate.  If such collective actions are not the domain of policy, then what is?  Do we do this perfectly in the policy realm?  Clearly the answer is no.  Sometimes the market can find a solution where politicians dither.  Leavitt and Dubner’s NYC horse manure story is a very entertaining example where the market did, in fact solve an externality problem, but not on purpose.  And, naturally, the solution to urban horse manure build-up (the automobile), brought with it a whole host of its own externalities.

But around this point in the book, the Superfreaks completely drop any mention of unintended consequences when they start discussing global geoengineering.  They present a proposal to pipe sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, in order to block some sunlight and cool the globe, and never express the slightest misgiving that this might have its own unintended consequences.  This is a major failure of the book.  They are impish contrarians, stirring the pot.  It’s hard to take their proposals seriously.

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It takes sour grapes to make good whine

Let me start by promoting a really good idea. Summer Advantage is a nonprofit, yet entrepreneurial, summer learning program designed to arrest and reverse the summer slide, the 3 month math and reading decline that puts low income kids further and further behind their middle class counterparts every year. Not only does Summer Advantage prevent the slide, the Scholars in the 2009 Indiana pilot gained 3 months! When a child goes from a 3 month loss to a 3 month gain, that adds up to 6 months of impact. Earl Phalen, the founder and CEO, is dedicated to Summer Advantage’s replication, at speed, throughout the nation. So you will probably hear about Summer Advantage again.

I heard about it because it was the protagonist of an education innovation case competition sponsored this weekend by the Kellogg School of Management. As a biased reporter, I’m happy to confirm that a University of Chicago Booth School of Business team won the competition. But not my team. There were three Chicago Booth teams in competition, out of nine, which I think is an excellent refutation of certain stereotypes about our MBA program.

My teammates and I didn’t get far because we fell into an analysis trap. Since a passion for in-depth analysis is the reason I started this blog, I’m sharing this “teachable moment.” We spent hours upon hours scouring the details, comparing poverty rates and funding levels between cities, heatedly arguing the fine points, and applying our well-taught theoretical frameworks. We really, really thought through the thing. And we really believe our recommendation is solid and achievable. And then we over-worked our slides, didn’t get enough sleep, didn’t rehearse, and didn’t present very well. I spent about a week on financial analysis that was greeted by blank stares. Maybe it was my stumbling speech and grouchy staring. Not sure.

In the end, we would have done a lot better in competition if we’d cut off the analysis a day earlier and just focused purely on our presentation and getting enough sleep. But we would not have come up with a better recommendation. So, I could sit on my high horse and complain about this. It would feel good. But our recommendation failed to impress because we did not do a good job communicating it. We could have been proving the feasibility of cold fusion, and nobody would have known. And it wasn’t just a competition. Earl Phalen, and his funders, colleagues and advisors, were right there, listening to us, looking for answers to difficult questions. It chafes to have been given that opportunity, and to have wasted it.

The presentation is not everything. But without strong presentation, the merits of one’s argument get lost. When competing with phrasemongers, you have to be smarter AND slicker.

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