Arnold Kling  

I am Not as Turned On

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More Sex (Steven E. Landsburg's new book), did not turn me on as much as it did Bryan (see here and here). I would give it a mixed review.

I think that a good teacher could use some of the examples to illustrate economic thinking. However, a non-economist reading the book on his own easily could come away with the impression that economics is about coming up with clever arguments for contrarian positions on things that seem to have little to do with economics. We do some of that, perhaps a lot of it, but I don't think that it's our comparative advantage.

The title essay argues for greater infidelity among otherwise-monogamous persons. If this essay persuades you, then you might want to venture out of the economics ghetto a bit. If nothing else, try Deirdre McCloskey's The Bourgeois Virtues, which is a much more difficult read, but worth the effort.

Other essays take more mainstream economic positions, such as arguing that sweatshops in poor countries are better than the alternative. However, Landsburg does not tell readers when he is expressing traditional economics and when he is going off on his own. Sometimes, he seems to me to be merely contrarian, as when Tyler Cowen becomes Tyrone. For my taste, Landsburg takes clever contrarianism well past the point of diminishing returns. Bryan and Tyler like the book, perhaps because for them the point of diminishing returns to this sort of cleverness is much farther away on the horizon.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)

If this essay persuades you, then you might want to venture out of the economics ghetto a bit.

That's your counterargument?

The thrust of the essay is that a) there are positive externalities when otherwise-monogamous people take extra partners; and b) positive externalities lead to inefficiently low activity levels.

I can't tell which half of that argument you disagree with, and I can't tell why. If you can make your objection clearer, I'll try to make the argument clearer in return.

ed writes:

I haven't read the book, but I feel the same way about his previous book and many of his essays.

However, his essay on Scrooge is classic. Also his essay on why you shouldn't be so angry about the budget deficit. Both these essays do deal with core economic issues, and can be found at Slate.com, I believe.

Arnold Kling writes:

Steven,

(a) is not persuasive, because there is a very high probability that you have not taken into account all of the positive and negative externalities of infidelity, so that one cannot have any confidence in your overall claim

(b) is not persuasive, because, as McCloskey points out, there are more virtues than mere utilitarianism. Among her other six, temperance, justice, and love come to mind as bearing on this question.

Regarding a), one could of course equally well say that there is a very high probability we haven't accounted for all the positive and negative externalities of greenhouse gases, and so don't know whether they should be encouraged or discouraged. But I claim to have pointed to two important positive externalities that 1) are not immediately obvious to most observers, 2) are clearly obvious once they've been pointed out, 3) are of considerable empirical importance (we know this from Michael Kremer's work) and 4) are therefore instructive to think about.

Regarding b)---I'm sure you know, because you've read the book, that I talk quite a bit about balancing the values of what you call utilitarianism (and what I would call efficiency) against other values. But efficiency is an important value, and it is very often the only value that economists bring to policy discussions. It is therefore, I think, well within the realm of mainstream economics to ask what efficiency demands of us.

In the first several chapters, I address exactly that question (What does efficiency demand?) and in later chapters I address the question of how to balance those demands against others. I'm not sure what you think I left out.

TGGP writes:

Landsburg's thesis on STDs seems to contradict what is observed in Africa.

SteffenH writes:

@ eddie:

Imagine you discuss things with your spouse and she agrees with S. Landsburgs logik. And, imagine you are able to overcome your jealous reflexes about sex. I think this is what Landsburgs Book is about: Change your mind, change your logic and than look for new solutions.

Fundamentalist writes:

If this essay persuades you, you might want to discuss things with your spouse.

Also, you may want to see a shrink!

Craig writes:

I haven't read this book, but I did buy one of Landsburg's earlier works some ten years ago before I'd begun to study economics. Your assessment rings true.

I didn't learn much about economics from the earlier book -- though it's still widely-praised among economists -- I just found it sort of, um, quirky and confusing. I think his writing may very well be interesting and novel for economists but perhaps not as informative as he might think for newbies. Thomas Sowell is probably a better bet for them (us.)

Jason Malloy writes:

Men have a much greater desire for sexual diversity than women. In fact attractive women are able to negotiate many fewer sexual partners, while unattractive women, with lower mate bargaining potential, find themselves getting used more often. Women with fewer sexual partners are less likely to be depressed (while the opposite is true for men). Women release more bonding hormones during sexual encounters than men, and this can create psychological distress when those emotions are not shared. Women limit their partner diversity for reasons of obvious evolutionary significance (Trivers 1972).

Feminists in the 1970s, rightly, caught on that men were using sexual liberation and expedient political clubs ("cmom baby don't side with "the man!"") to coerce them into sexual behavior they didn't want. It's good to know that women can now be blamed for spreading disease by not "putting out" like they should.

As TGGP notes with link above, Africa is one example of how far Landsburg's ideas could go given the right ecological circumstances and the attendant consequences, but women are still the limiting factor. Since men biologically prefer much more sexual diversity, we can actually look to the best possible real world example of Landsburg's free love model: gay men in the 1970s.

How did that turn out in the 1980s? Less disease right? I forget.

I've enjoyed Landsburg's Slate columns over the years, but the 'Freakonomics' trend has struck me as irresponsible, and the title essay of this book seems to sum that up better than anything. Sophistry is not a light matter, especially if it advocates dangerous or antisocial behavior. If it's trying to be cute or narrowly hypothetical it should clearly present itself as such. Landsburg's defensive blog comments lead me to believe he is actually committed to these bad ideas - they aren't just a fun mental exercise like sudoku. So I can't say I'd like this book to do well.


Trivers, R.L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual selection and the descent of man, 1871-1971 (pp. 136-179)

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