By Chris | November 2, 2007
…caught my attention when I was looking through the Economics section at Barnes and Noble last May. The book was More Sex is Safer Sex, by Steven Landsburg. In the bookstore, I made it through the first chapter which uses economic logic to support the title’s provocative claim. Landsburg argues that when conservative people with relatively few past sexual partners (a safe past) enter the pool of people looking for casual partners, the quality of the pool improves for everyone else. An interesting observation, but not awe inspiring enough to warrant use as the title. Feeling a little guilty about reading so much of the book and not excited enough to buy it, I put the book back. That was a mistake.
Earlier this week, I got the book through my library’s inter-library loan program and I read the entire book in one sitting. It was that good. Things kept getting better and better after the first chapter. I really enjoyed Landsburg’s writing style which is very lucid and conversational. As a contributor to Slate, he has received a lot of feedback from online readers on past articles. This allows him to respond to past readers questions and concerns about his arguments. Occasionally, he addresses the reader to make a point. Anticipating that some people might be opposed to valuing a human life in cost benefit analysis, he tells the reader to “grow up”. Many of his proposals are quite radical and challenge conventional wisdom. For example, he argues that you should only donate to one charity, that jurors should have access to all public information, and that Congress should be replaced with representatives supporting citizens’ whose last names starts with the same letter. While I didn’t agree with all of his proposals, Landsburg asked the right questions and kept me engaged throughout the book.
I particularly enjoyed his discussion of externalities. He explored which externalities are worthy of correcting. My neighbor may undergo severe emotional stress when I eat chicken nuggets at McDonalds because the chickens were raised in inhumane conditions (I actually knew someone like this). There would likely be an efficiency gain if my consumption of McDonanlds was taxed. Why shouldn’t this externality count? How is it different from my neighbor taking offense that my grass is too long, or my dandelions are spreading?
Landsburg’s contemplation of human rationality was probably my favorite, and the most confusing portion of the book. Why do humans lock the refrigerator door or intentionally pass by the ATM when we are running short on cash in an attempt to curtail spending? How do our emotions provide signals to others? Landsburg answers these and other questions in a robust inspection of the workings of the human mind.
I’m hoping to make book reviews a regular feature of this blog. Landsburg’s More Sex is Safer Sex set the bar high. I’ll be surprised and pleased if future books match up against this thought-provoking and enjoyable read.