Just like bottled water

R Srinivasan | Updated on January 24, 2018

Daily patterns: This book offers a look at a counterintuitive approach to everyday things — like the economics of boarding a crowded bus. R Ravindran   -  THE HINDU

When to Rob a Bank – A rouge economist’s guide to the world By Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner Allen Lane pp 387 Rs 625.00

When to Rob a Bank, a collection of blog posts, is unlikely to join the league of well-loved bestseller Freakonomics

With their first book, Freakonomics, Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner managed to do for economics what Stephen Hawking did for physics with his A Brief History of Time – take something which is widely, and fairly justifiably, known to be dry and difficult to understand (not for nothing is economics also known as the ‘dismal science) – and turn it into a rollicking, roller-coaster intellectual ride that millions of people could actually enjoy.

Not having any maths in their books helps. Black holes and the space-time continuums being what they are, Hawking couldn’t quite manage to leave all the maths out, which is why Brief History remains one of those books which more people have possibly bought than have read all the way through (admit it – did you finish your copy?).

But one can’t say the same about the Freakonomics franchise. In the decade since the book first appeared, it has grown into several books, a widely syndicated column, a website, a blog and even a movie (though admittedly a documentary!). It is available in virtually every airport book stall in the world, and the duo have joined Chetan Bhagat and Dale Carnegie in the stack which urchins who sell pirated books at traffic signals in Indian cities thrust through your car window. In other words, they are no longer economists who write popular books – they are popular writers, period, popular enough to be given space in expensive airport stall shelves, popular enough to be pirated.

What is the secret of this staggering success? Perhaps it is the engaging nature of the subjects they write about. In the book under review, for instance, one of the questions which bugs them is the “lie of reputation” – why people lie more about some things (like having read A Brief History of Time), even when the stakes are low. Where there are incentives, it’s fairly easy to understand – like lying about your age on a dating site – but why did 93 per cent of doctors in an Australian medical study say they washed their hands after every examination, when the actual rate was found to be just 9 per cent? It’s the reputation effect, where you under or overstate something simply to present yourself in a better light to the questioner. Which is pretty much what the quibbling about the findings about the level of deprivation among rural households in the latest socio-economic census report is all about!

It’s these kind of Eureka! moments – when the ordinary reader gets an insight into a seemingly complex issue, which at the same is instantly relatable to his or her own life, which has made the Freakonomics pantheon such a global sensation. Sadly, When to Rob a Bank – even if it’s sub-titled ‘A rogue economist’s guide to the world’ – is unlikely to join that league.

For starters, it isn’t a new ‘book’ – in the sense of containing new thoughts and writings. It is just a collection of blog posts from the Freakonomics blogs. It is, as the authors themselves disarmingly point out in the introduction, the print version of bottled water – something which is widely available free, but is still packaged and sold. The justification is that, like bottled water, some extra work has gone in, in the form of a curated selection of the most ‘interesting’ posts.

That, of course, is what the authors claim. This may not necessarily be accepted by many readers, particularly towards the end of the book, when signs of strain clearly start to show. There is a section called ‘kaleidoscopia’, which even the authors admit might be more honestly tagged ‘miscellaneous’. From wisdom from Levitt’s dentist to a couple of emotional but out of sync posts about the death of Levitt’s sister to God, it reflects the range of interests of two intelligent, articulate and well educated people – but offers none of the understanding of the tools of economics on offer in their other books, and, to be fair, in various places even in this book.

Being a collection of blog posts, the narrative is jumpy (Levitt and Dubner write separately in the blog) and unlike the earlier books, the research is nowhere as thorough, since the posts were meant to interest and provoke, not necessarily also provide answers to the questions they raise. This is where one feels a little bit more work could have gone in, since many of the posers are intriguing, and it is frustrating to not know the answer.

Still, if you have not read all the earlier books (and even if you have), this collection offers a good look at the duo’s counter-intuitive approach to everyday things – like the economics of boarding a crowded bus – to the not so everyday – like whether people without sexually transmitted diseases should be encouraged to have sex in order to reduce the overall risk of HIV/AIDS (the answer’s yes, by the way).

As to the title question. Statistically, Fridays mornings appear to be best, from a bank robber’s point of view. Unless, of course, the robber happened to be a fan of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, like former MIT professor Joe Gibbons, in which case the odds appear to turn against the robber. Gibbons, inspired by the poet’s admonition to ‘descend into the depths of all that was bad and report back’, decided to rob a bank and make a film of himself doing it. The professor’s in the clink at the moment – but then, he taught visual arts, not economics!

Published on July 17, 2015

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