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Shocked, Shocked … but Not Much Else
Landsburg's More Sex Is Safer Sex is evidence itself of the power of incentives.


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The main theme of Steven Landsburg’s More Sex Is Safer Sex is that incentives matter. That is no surprise, given the phenomenal success of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics, which was written along much the same lines. Indeed, Levitt’s book has given rise to a slew of related books — in this year alone, Landsburg’s latest offering, Robert Frank’s The Economic Naturalist, and Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist.

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A professor at the University of Rochester and Slate columnist, Landsburg, more than Levitt, can claim to have founded this thriving genre with his entertaining 1993 guide to economics, The Armchair Economist. One of the more interesting aspects of his present book is how far it departs from his earlier one, and how this might very well be an instance of Landsburg responding to the incentives posed by the Freakonomics rise to bestsellerdom.


More Sex Is Safer Sex is a flashier book (as the title attests) than The Armchair Economist, and Landsburg shares with Levitt a fondness for cutesy arguments that are too-clever-by-half (e.g., Levitt’s claim about the cheating sumo-wrestlers in Freakonomics, Landsburg’s contention that sexual moderation is like promiscuity in More Sex). And much like Freakonomics, More Sex is not so boldly counterintuitive as its title makes it sound. Many of the book’s arguments will be recognizable to anyone who’s ever taken an Econ 101 class or occasionally reads the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Landsburg takes shots at familiar (and much deserving) targets, including protectionists, the Malthusian Zero Population Growth fanatics, Ralph Nader, and fair trade advocates.

The best section of the book (and unfortunately, the shortest) most resembles The Armchair Economist. Here Landsburg explores a seemingly trivial question (Why is popcorn so expensive at the movies?) to illustrate basic economic concepts and show how economists think about problems.

In an essay investigating the effect of motherhood on future earnings, Landsburg explains how economists create experiments to distinguish between cause and correlation. In another, Landsburg examines a popular explanation of rising obesity (call it the “Supersize Me” theory after Morgan Spurlock’s documentary): namely, that greedy fast-food companies have conspired to fatten us up by offering larger portions. Landsburg points out that the Supersize Me theory explains only why Americans are fat — not why they have gotten fatter. If McDonald’s could have made us junk-food-eating couch potatoes just by offering us “biggie fries,” surely they would have done so earlier. Landsburg suggests a few alternative theories: 1) that the advent of drugs, like Lipitor, have made obesity less costly, and 2) that new low-fat foods encourage us to eat larger servings.

When we get to what Landsburg calls the “big questions,” though, the limitations of the economist’s view becomes clear. A self-described “hard-core libertarian,” Landsburg thinks “anything goes” for consenting adults — even if that means consenting to being tortured (or, perhaps, like the infamous 2001 German cannibal case, consenting to being another man’s lunch) — and he evaluates such actions according to a cost-benefit criterion. Landsburg concedes that, according to a “strict cost-benefit criterion,” a rich sadist should be able to torture a victim even without his consent — provided he paid the appropriate price for the privilege. But lest we get the idea that economists are cold-blooded utilitarians, Landsburg quickly assures us that no economist actually thinks this would be okay (whew!). Cost-benefit analysis is not the “be-all and end-all of public evaluation. We care also about values like dignity and freedom” (though he does think we’ll still have some “uncomfortable balancing” to do).

Unfortunately, this modesty about the limits of economic analysis is not evident in the rest of the book. In an earlier chapter, Landsburg argues that people should be allowed to sell their kidneys. “Frankly,” he declares, “I can’t imagine how you can believe otherwise and be a decent human being.” From a “strict cost-benefit criterion,” it’s hard to argue with Landsburg. But what about the other values he mentioned before, like dignity and freedom? Might they not lead a perfectly decent human being to weigh the costs and benefits of such a transaction differently?

Landsburg is too fond of overstatement, and he clearly relishes the thought that many will be offended and outraged by his arguments. His writing is meant “to assault your common sense” — and, apparently, to assault your sense of common decency, too. While discussing the case of Terri Schiavo, Landsburg compares her to a broken toaster, and suggests that her husband, Michael Schiavo, would have had a better case for removing her feeding tube if he could have come up with some use for her body — like “cook[ing] it up for dinner.”

Landsburg manages to be even more callous in his chapter on end-of-life issues, this time regarding the case of Tirhas Habtegiris, a 27-year-old terminal cancer patient, who was removed from her ventilator after she failed to pay her hospital bills. According to her family, Habtegiris was fully conscious at the time, and had hoped to hang on until her East African mother could make the trip to the U.S. to visit. It took her about fifteen minutes to die. The case provoked considerable outcry, and Baylor Medical Center later denied that the family’s inability to pay had affected the hospital’s decision.

Landsburg, in what would be one of his most hotly debated columns to appear in Slate, argued that Baylor was wrong — though not for disconnecting Habtegiris from life support but for denying that cost played any role. There is a serious argument to be made here: that, given our finite resources, we have to make rational, hard-headed decisions about the costs of keeping someone around for another week, month, or even year. (For an excellent discussion of these issues, see Daniel Callahan’s “Conservatives, Liberals and Medical Progress” in The New Atlantis.)

But such an argument is too serious for Landsburg. Instead, he makes the clever but perverse argument that by letting Tirhas Habtegiris suffocate, the authorities at Baylor Medical Center were actually doing what she really wanted. As he explains, if someone had asked Habtegiris before she became sick to choose between “ventilator insurance” and some other benefit with the same cost, she probably would have chosen the other benefit. Thus, by a reversal that Humpty Dumpty would admire, those who protested Habtegiris’s treatment were really the uncompassionate ones, since, unlike Landsburg and Baylor, they were ignoring the patient’s preferences.

Landsburg further points to the illogic of preferring an “identified life” over a “statistical life.” Drawing on an argument by economist Thomas Schelling, Landsburg asks why people will spend millions to save a known victim — like Habtegiris — but are unwilling to spend $200,000 to erect a traffic barrier that would save one life a year? (Maybe instead of Ebenezer Scrooge, Landsburg might take another Dickens creation as his role model: Mrs. Jellyby, who neglects her own family while working on various philanthropic enterprises.) As economist Robert Frank pointed out in the New York Times, this instinct is not irrational: “It is one thing to risk one’s own life in an unlikely automobile accident, but quite another to abandon a known victim in distress.”

The title essay of his book, “More Sex Is Safer Sex,” suffers from many of the same deficiencies already mentioned. Landsburg argues that people with few sexual partners — “sexual conservatives” — should take more partners in order to slow the spread of STDs. By going out Friday night, the sexual conservative improves the odds that his fellow party-goers will go home with someone disease-free. If he happens to be infected, he’s more likely not to spread the disease further than someone sexually promiscuous.

It’s an amusing enough thought experiment, but, like many others in the book, wholly unserious. And it becomes progressively more ridiculous as Landsburg follows his argument to its logical conclusion. Soon, he’s arguing that we should create a government-subsidized dating service to encourage sexual conservatives. (Strangely, for a “hardcore libertarian,” Landsburg does not mention the dangers of big government until the end of the book.) The details as to how this program would work are even more outrageous — but this is a family website.

Landsburg considers his solution “win-win” since it lowers STD rates while maximizing sexual encounters. More sex, he explains, means more pleasure, and thus greater happiness for all. It’s an oddly emotionally detached view of sexuality. Surely, sex involves feelings more complicated than mere sexual satisfaction, and one-night stands can cause as much (or more) unhappiness as pleasure. No wonder economist Ken Boulding, in his essay “Economics as a Moral Science,” wrote: “No one in his senses would want his daughter to marry an economic man, one who counted every cost and asked for every reward, was never afflicted by mad generosity or uncalculating love….Economic man is a clod.”

Economic man may be a clod, but he does occasionally have some good advice. Writing a book, Landsburg warns, can be a “socially destructive act” because of the spillover effects. By writing More Sex Is Safer Sex, he admits he’s imposed costs on another author whose book you might have read instead. But since I would argue there are other values more important than the cost-benefit criterion, I won’t suggest that Landsburg suffer all the costs of his advice. Buy The Armchair Economist instead.

Cheryl Miller is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

JUST CAN’T GET ENOUGH?: Jennifer Morse knows sex. It’s not an armchair, but C. R. Hardy reviewed the Undercover Economist.



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