A witty and razor-sharp look at the many ways our individually rational decisions can combine into some truly weird collective results—and some hilarious and serious ways to fix just about everything.
Economics is no longer the “dismal science” dreaded by college freshmen. In recent years, a band of economists has broken away from the charts and graphs of college textbooks, and begun to explain ordinary behavior in plain and often entertaining English. Steve Landsburg was one of the first of the new breed, in his book The Armchair Economist and long-running “Everyday Economics” column in Slate magazine. Now he is back, and more provocative than ever.
In More Sex Is Safer Sex, Landsburg shows how the rational behavior of each one of us—when combined together—produces the often bizarre, seemingly irrational behavior of crowds. We all stand up at the ballpark, so none of us can see. We avoid casual sex, from fear of disease, and we thereby make sex more dangerous. Things really get interesting when Landsburg suggests ways to change the rules, and game the system. Why not charge juries if a convicted felon is exonerated? Why not have each member of Congress represent a national subset of voters, chosen alphabetically? Why not solve the “overpopulation” problem by having more children, who will help think of ways to improve our use of resources?
More Sex Is Safer Sex will make you laugh and argue—and it will make you think about the world around you in new and unforgettable ways.
Economics books full of "uncommon sense" are more common after the success of Freakonomics, but this rambling survey of hot-button and quotidian issues viewed from a libertarian economic perspective doesn't measure up. Landsburg (The Armchair Economist) is sometimes pleasantly counterintuitive, but too often simply contentious. In using cost/benefit calculations to argue in favor of racial profiling or why we shouldn't care about the looting of Baghdad's museums, he strains to celebrate "all that is counter, original, spare and strange." While positing multiple solutions to interesting problems, he forces logical readers to confront uncomfortable positions as in the title essay, urging chaste citizens to sleep around, thereby diluting the pool of potential sex partners with AIDS. But the chapters typically conclude without resolution at one point, the author shrugs: "It's not easy to sort out causes from effects." One suspects that a rival economist could swiftly debunk many of Landsburg's arguments for instance, his chapter praising misers (who produce but don't consume) depends on the assumption that all resources are fixed and finite. By the time he makes the head-scratching case that "it's always an occasion for joy when other people have more children," the reader may be in the mood for some plain old common sense.