Thursday, June 16, 2011

Street Walkers, Veg-O-Matics, and Credit Default Swaps: Three Book Reviews

Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner: I enjoyed Freakonomics when it came out--like most people did--although I don't think it's the best "popular" economic text out there (The Armchair Economist probably gets that title). Thankfully, it spawned a great number of similar books. Superfreakonomics isn't must different than the original book; in fact, it's basically more of the same. Which is a good thing, since the articles and experiments are all wonderfully chosen and well-explained. I actually prefer this to the original. This book also reinforces my belief that if anyone of authority tells you anything, they are either dumb or a straight-up liar. (I prefer to think they are both.) Lest you think this is simply a rabble-rousing antiauthoritarian doctrine, all of the questions asked (Are toddler car seats worth it? Should we trust doctors to do the proper sanitary precautions hey clearly know? Are prostitutes rational in their career choice?) are well-researched and make you want to shake all of the safety Nazis and self-involved professionals until some sense creeps in. Lest you be dismayed, of course, there is very little real economics involved in the book: the few formulas are safely tucked in the back of the book, with only a few phrases and jargon peppered in the text to tip you off that you're still reading a book written by a dismal scientist.

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. I've written about my mediocre enjoyment of his books before: I think he has some good ideas and presents them well, but when the book is done I feel like I'm just reading someone who has given fancy names to the blatantly obvious. This book is a collection of magazine articles from The New Yorker and, as such, don't have that padded-out with pseudosociology feel his standalone books have. Because they are shorter, they get to the point quicker and are much more effective; by far, this is his most interesting book. Some are standard profile pieces, such as the story of Ron Popeil of infomercial fame, which some are mini-books similar to his other works (such as the inability to spot patterns until after the fact or the safety risks one should accept in the world). Some still fall flat--the title article about Cesar Millan doesn't seem to go anywhere--and the end of the book is filled with his more theoretical ideas that just start to grow wearisome by the time you're done. But it poses so many interesting ideas and thoughts that I highly recommend it.

The Big Short by Michael Lewis. I love reading financial books, although I don't really know why. The actual mechanics of finance don't really interest me--I never picked up the acumen to be effective at it. I've read Lewis's previous huge book, Liar's Poker, and so I thought a similar treatment about the recent economic crisis is warranted. (Another book about the crisis, House of Cards, is probably more in depth, but it focuses pretty much exclusively on the fall of Bear Sterns.) The Big Short focuses mainly on several personalities that noticed that something very, very wrong was happening with the American economy long before anyone else did; these few brave souls did what they could to bet against the economy (known as "shorting" the market) because they knew it would eventually fall. At first they were treated as ill-prepared neophytes basically giving money away. Then they were seen as pests who were trying to pull a fast one. Then they became pariahs as people realized exactly how much money they were going to take from them. Lewis probably casts the heroes and villains a little too black and white: the clearly thinks the rating agencies (specifically Moody's but also S&P) are evil, while the far-sighted shorters are the unsung heroes. It's more complicated than that--how many of us would praise people who waited for our economic system to collapse to cash in?--and yet I get the point: the successful people were the suckers, and the people who bet against dishonesty won in the end. Lewis does a capable job of explaining the basics, although from other readings I know it's a lot more complicated than just ratings and credit swaps, and Lewis doesn't spend much time outside of the world he knows. Still, this is probably the easiest book to read if you want a nice, clean explanation of what happened.

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