Posts Tagged ‘Steven Landsburg’

While the title is certainly humorous, the book bearing it is much, much more.  More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconvential Wisdom of Economics, the latest book by University of Rochester economist Steven Landsburg, sets out to explain why common sense and conventional wisdom don’t always lead us to the “correct” conclusion (when the author says correct he means economically correct, which is to say that we choose the option with the greatest cost-benefit trade off. He also generally speaks about the economy or society as a whole, not necessarily what is best for the individual actor).

The examples that Landsburg cites are alternatively hilarious and thought provoking. There are times I found myself nodding along and other times I found myself saying “what kind of whack job is this guy”. Since I’m certainly not a well-trained economist I can appreciate the concise, jargon-free, logical way that Landsburg presents his arguments. His analysis is consistent and rigorous and he freely admits when he makes assumptions not supported by data that might affect the conclusions he offers.

For example:
We could reform politics by giving every voter two votes for congressional elections. One would be cast as it is now, for a candidate in your district.  The second vote could be cast in any district in the country. This would allow voters to vote for their own congressman (or at least the person they would like to be their congressman), while also keeping other congressmen honest. In our current system a congressman answers only to his constituents and is thus incentivized to grab as much pork for his district as possible. The cost of this pork (think the bridge to nowhere) is shared by all tax payers, including those who do not benefit from the pork. If everyone had a second vote they could “punish” those congressmen who waste taxpayer money.

Additionally, parents of girls are more likely to divorce than are parents of boys. Landsburg argues, and supports with econometrics, that parents prefer male children (and, no, this study was not conducted in China – it is a US based study).  The study accounts for all sorts of variables and seems to prove that parents prefer boys.

When normally chaste people have more casual sex they may actually be making the world safer. See his argument summed up in a NY Times article here (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/08/books/chapters/0708-1st-land.html).

We should fine juries who arrive at the wrong outcome for a trial. Since society bears the cost of freed murderers (by becoming more likely to be murdered – even minimally more likely) and bear a cost if we imprison innocent people (because a system that imprisons innocent people is more likely to imprison you) it is in our best interest to provide an incentive for juries to arrive at the right conclusion by fining them for being wrong and rewarding them for being right). We could police this by holding trials for criminals who have already confessed and comparing the jury’s outcome to the confession.

Miserliness is equivalent to charity in that they both leave more resources for others to consumer. And thus, Scrooge is actually generous by being such a miser. “What could be more generous than keeping your lamps unlit and your plate unfilled, leaving more fuel for others to burn and more food for others to eat” (Page 43).

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The ideas are mostly impractical when it comes to actually implementing them in a political democracy (and the morality of many of them is certainly suspect), but as an intellectual exercise it was a lot fun. I highly recommend buying a copy and seeing for yourself why conventional wisdom is not always right.

Good Talk,

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